Three leading American political figures have given the Democratic Party just what many experts think it needs: a good spanking. In rapid succession:
Former United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a lifelong Democrat, declared, ``I'm becoming a Republican.'' She explained to an interviewer: ``I wasn't thinking like a Democrat. I wasn't acting like a Democrat. I didn't feel like a Democrat.'' The party's foreign policy, she suggested, smacks of appeasement.
Former President Jimmy Carter, another Democrat, went back to his winning 1976 race to find a formula for revitalizing the party. What's needed, he said, is a mixture of conservative and progressive policies, including a strong defense policy, lower deficits, and support for civil rights.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, accused the party of allowing Republicans to ``seize the high ground of our own heritage and history.'' The senator called for a job-creating federal role ``to support research and development, to encourage investment, to enhance private employment, and to revive our foreign trade.''
In their own way, however, these three critics are themselves a microcosm of Democratic division and disarray. Even as they were applying the paddle to the party, they were whacking one another.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick, in a lengthy interview with the Los Angeles Times, took a swing at Mr. Carter's foreign policy ideas as ``dangerous, romantic, and naive.'' At almost the same moment, Mr. Carter said that Senator Kennedy didn't have the credibility he needs on conservative issues to revive the party. And Senator Kennedy was attacking Ronald Reagan's military buildup, which Mrs. Kirkpatrick enthusiastically supports, as ``reckless.''
It was Mrs. Kirkpatrick's formal switch on Wednesday to the Republican Party that drew some of the greatest interest. Insiders expect her to become a strong voice in the party's future. She's been mentioned both as a potential vice-presidential and presidential contender in 1988.
In recent months, she had made it clear that her break with the Democratic Party was probably irreversible. In her Times interview, she noted:
``I think the Democratic Party mainstream reflected the answer to the problems of the Depression, and I think those answers were good answers.''
But today, ``the Republican Party has better answers to the problems -- with deregulation and dismantling of unnecessary restraints on the economy and the restoration of American strength in foreign policy.''
For Mrs. Kirkpatrick, the central issue of our times is foreign policy and defense. ``To an unusual extent, the world is balanced on a razor's edge. The policies of the next five years can determine whether whole continents fall apart and how safe or unsafe we, the democracies, become.''
Mr. Carter also sees defense policy as pivotal to the party's hopes. But his tack diverges from the more hawkish elements with its emphasis on human rights, negotiations, arms control, and less saber-rattling.
He feels that a wide range of policy changes, both foreign and domestic, will be essential if Democrats are to get back into contention in presidential races. In his words, it will require ``a combination of approaches, some of which would be considered quite conservative, and some quite progressive, or liberal.''
The conservative agenda: fewer regulations on free enterprise; maximizing competition; noninflationary fiscal policy, including a ``pledge to reduce the deficit''; steady growth in defense spending.
The progressive agenda: more use of negotiations to resolve foreign disputes; a ``strong emphasis'' on civil rights at home and human rights abroad; championing nuclear arms controls; insistence on environmental quality.
These policies are admittedly a Southern approach to Democratic policy problems, but Mr. Carter says they should work nationwide.
Senator Kennedy highlights domestic issues when he talks of party renewal.
He calls for ``new ideas'' -- innovative ways to help those in need. Facing criticism for some expensive programs, he notes:
``Those of us who care about domestic progress must do more with less. . . . We cannot and should not depend on higher tax revenues to . . . redeem every costly program.''