Democrats note need to place principles over special interests

The longtime Democrat, a high functionary in the Mondale campaign, had a plaintive note in his voice. ''Are we a collection of minorities?'' he asked rhetorically, after hearing two hours of speechs on Where the Democrats Go From Here. ''Is that our fate?''

All over Washington, Democrats are struggling to crawl out from under the wreckage of Nov. 6. Seminars have already been organized. Editorials and commentary are flying thick and fast.

Much of this early analysis touches on two themes: the Democrats' need to judge ideas according to the party's true principles, instead of according to political debts owed various special groups; and the need to turn to state and local parties for fresh leadership.

The immediate problem Democrats seem to be struggling with is summarized in one pollster's opinion piece as ''The Donkey's Dilemma: White Men Don't Vote Democratic.'' Walter Mondale attracted only 31 percent of the white male vote, according to a CBS News poll. To win back a significant slice of this group, some Democrats say, the party must pay more attention to the concerns of the prosperous middle class.

''We have not effectively indicated that minorities are not running the party ,'' said Max M. Kampelman, the American delegate to the recent Stockholm Conference on European Security, at a meeting sponsored by the Coalition For a Democratic Majority (CDM), an organization that advocates a strong defense.

The wooing of those relatively well-off is a delicate exercise for the Democrats. If the party goes too far, it risks losing its soul, writes former Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat. The Gary Hart ''new ideas'' theme is, of course , one approach that might be tried. But some Democrats say it is not so much new ideas that are needed as new courage to evaluate positions according to basic beliefs, instead of according to the demands of Washington interest-group leaders. Such a rethinking by Democrats might lead to changes in positions such as these, say some party members:

Domestic content. The 1984 Democratic platform called for foreign automakers to be required to use a certain proportion of US-made parts in foreign cars sold in the US. Such a policy is in the interest only of auto workers, not the country, complains Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D) of Arizona. ''The Democratic Party is in mortal danger of becoming the party of protectionism,'' Governor Babbitt said at the CDM seminar.

Nuclear freeze. ''A popular enthusiasm seized upon by politicians who know perfectly well it is a silly gimmick,'' says an editorial in the generally liberal magazine The New Republic.

Quotas. The Democratic platform supported ''goals, timetables, and other verifiable measures'' for enforcing equal opportunity for all. This has long been a divisive issue in the party, and now, Mr. Eizenstat writes, ''we must continue to support affirmative action . . . while at the same time we make clear our opposition to quotas.''

New ideas that Democrats might do well to adopt, according to speakers at the CDM seminar, are a new United Nations of free societies, as well as tax reform. In fact, Democrats might do well, said Babbitt, to embrace the Treasury Department's just-released tax-simplification proposal.

''It is a superb proposal,'' reflecting traditional Democratic ideals of fairness, he said. ''It is so good the President will not have the fortitude to endorse it.''

At the state and local levels, Democrats are doing well at balancing the need for fiscal prudence against party values of caring and compassion, noted Babbitt and Gov. Charles Robb (D) of Virginia at the meeting.

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