When Democrats search for identity

ONE of the chief problems the Democrats are having is that they really don't have a recognized national spokesman. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill's voice doesn't go much beyond Congress. Democratic national chairman Paul Kirk is still relatively unknown among Democrats, let alone the American public. Walter Mondale has joined Jimmy Carter in private life. Thus, two senators and one governor -- Gary Hart, Edward Kennedy, and Mario Cuomo -- have become the top men in the party. Indeed, they are the Democrats who command the biggest national audience and the most nationwide press attention when they set forth their views.

The Empire State's Mario Cuomo, it is recalled, tugged the emotions of thousands of Democrats at last year's national convention with his call for a Democratic Party based on compassion -- a party (and nation) that excludes no Americans.

Gary Hart, meanwhile, the purveyor of ``new'' ideas in the 1984 campaign, has now come up with what might be called his first tentative draft of a blueprint for what his party should stand for in coming elections.

Mr. Hart says tax reform should be a centerpiece of the party's new approach. He contends that Democrats, including him, were well ahead of Reagan and the Republicans on this issue and that the public must be made aware of this. Also, a Hart-drafted tax reform plan would differ from President Reagan's. He would weigh it more in favor of those in lower income brackets.

That all may have political appeal, but a president can seize an issue that may have initially come out of a Democratic initiative in Congress and claim it for his own. Any approach a president accepts and then actively pushes becomes a presidential initiative, particularly if the program, with his prodding, becomes law.

Treasury Secretary James Baker is now the chief implementer of pushing through the administration's tax reform plan. And he would provide tax breaks that the original proposal does not contain. White House chief of staff Donald Regan has told reporters he would be ``flexible'' and open to revision regarding tax reform. Thus, Mr. Regan and Mr. Baker are expected -- despite some reports of emerging personal differences -- to get together on a final tax reform initiative that the President will fully and enthusiastically support. That, of course, increases the prospects for a successful GOP-White House-backed tax reform plan.

Hart, finally, asserts that the voters must also be reminded by acts and words that it is the Democratic Party that is the protector of civil rights.

Here, however, the ``newness'' of this approach is open to question. In fact, the nearly unanimous black support for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket seemed to attest to the continuing evidence that the Democratic Party is already being perceived as the party that has been and is doing the most for minorities.

Senator Kennedy's ``new'' approach to governing, meanwhile, is already stirring up much discussion. He is sounding very much like the President when he says that the Democrats ``must show the courage'' to discard outdated programs. He has obviously read the 1984 election results and come to the conclusion that to be in tune with voter thinking he must become a saver -- not a spender -- of taxpayers' money.

Hart, Kennedy, and Cuomo must be credited with giving a good try at finding a new and winning path for the Democratic Party. But they haven't found any clear-cut agenda yet.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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