The ballroom glittered. The jewels shimmered. It was Washington's annual black-tie salute to Congress, and 1,300 of this city's high and mighty were enjoying filet mignon along with a few laughs at themselves. One joke, however, was altogether too true for Democrats. There's a huge struggle going on this week, observed one speaker, freshman Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts. The battle is hard-fought over who will be the next national chairman of the Democratic Party. Why is there such interest in the race? The reason, said Senator Kerry, is clear: It's the only national race that a Democrat can win these days.
The crowd laughed. But many Democrats in the audience, including Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, knew that Kerry's humorous barb had a serious point. The Democratic Party has been beaten in four of the last five races for the White House. And three of those defeats were real stompings.
If change doesn't come soon to the Democratic Party, Governor Robb says, then Democrats ``may be in for . . . a protracted period as the minority party in national politics.''
Furthermore, Robb says, the situation could worsen. Unless the party is turned around at the national level, Democratic strength could quickly erode at the state and local levels.
The Democratic National Committee votes today on its new chairman. The choice of that chairman, however, is less important than the need to give the party a fresh, new voice and image at the national level, the governor says.
Robb, interviewed by the Monitor, has been among the Democratic governors spearheading efforts to polish the party's image and turn it toward new policies for the 1980s and '90s.
The governor sees no quick or easy answers to Democratic problems. He says the party probably faces ``at least two years'' during which it will suffer from ``a lack of clear definition, clear vision, of what [it] is all about.''
Governors, senators, and especially members of the US House will have to play a major role in reviving the party's national stature, says Robb. It will be younger Democrats -- such as Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona -- who will lead the intellectual revival of the party, Robb suggests.
The key to Democratic success, he says, probably doesn't lie in any particular ideological approach. Rather, the party needs to turn to the future -- and to go beyond its past, however rich that may have been.
This will require leaders who ``have given some thought to the problems of today and tomorrow, and are not necessarily bound by the emotions of having created solutions to past problems.''
Newer leaders, says Robb, don't feel obligated to defend past policies, as some older ones do.
Robb also voices another concern. The Democratic Party has developed an image that is tied to certain pressure groups. Too often, the party is seen serving the interests of those groups, rather than the interests of the nation as a whole.
To illustrate his point, Robb likes to cite a statement by former President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat:
``A political party,'' the President said, ``exists to serve a large and urgent national purpose.''
The party can hope to capture the White House again, says Robb, only when it can convince voters that Democrats put the nation's interests first, not the interests of any major group, or groups.
During the interview, Robb declined to name any of the groups that may have gained too much influence over the party. But the groups are well known, and include big labor unions, feminists, blacks, Hispanics, and others. Big labor has especially been criticized for being the ``Big Foot'' of the party, and for trying to dictate who would be the party's nominee.
Influence by these pressure groups in the early 1984 caucuses and primaries eliminated such middle-road presidential candidates as Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and former Gov. Reubin Askew of Florida.
``That's the thing many of us find most troubling,'' Robb says. ``Not that any particular candidate would get blown away, but that the party activists have, for the most part, dominated. [Yet] party activists don't really represent the mainstream of the party.
``It's not that they shouldn't be part of the process. It's that they exert disproportionate influence at the critical nominating time. And, of course, they frequently exert a disproportionate influence in constructing the party's [national] platform.''
This has made local and state Democratic officeholders run away from the national party at election time. The state parties and the national party have often been ``like ships passing in the night,'' says Robb. In Virginia, he notes, there has been something referred to as ``a golden silence'' among local Democrats. In careful statements, they have put distance between themselves and the national leadership. It's been a matter of survival in local offices.
``We now have drifted so far apart that it has become a real handicap for far too many [state and local] Democratic candidates to have to defend a national image that is at the very least counterproductive in their own races. Once that [situation] becomes institutionalized, as it's in the process of becoming right now, the two separate parties can't continue to exist.''
State officials, like Robb, are looking for answers. But it will take more than just that, he says. Some of the special interest groups that have been gaining influence in the party will have to be more restrained, he says.
``We're not saying you [the groups] can't be our friends any more; we're simply saying we want you to look at the question through a larger field of vision, to be more inclusive in your thinking, and, frankly, be less selfish.''
The ultimate revival of the party, Robbs says, will probably have to await a new field of candidates for the presidential nomination. The governor says 1988 could be a critical year, with most of the old names gone, and a host of new faces from the House, Senate, and governors' offices in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
These younger candidates will be looking toward the future, toward sound economic prosperity, and toward the traditional values of Middle America -- a direction that could eventually bring about the party's national revival, Robb suggests.