Democrats debate future. Party officials look to grass roots for new beginning

Democrats have a new watchword: listen. The listening process began for many party leaders on Election Day, 1984, when they saw Walter Mondale go down to a smacking defeat in 49 of the 50 states. It was the party's fourth loss in the last five presidential elections.

Now national leaders of the party have begun a more formal process of listening to the ideas, concerns, and hopes of Democrats across the country. A number of those party officials -- mayors, governors, state legislators, members of Congress -- gathered here this week to talk about the party's future.

The meetings were subdued. Speeches were stripped of much of the customary political rhetoric, the usual jibes at President Reagan, the traditional oratory about the party's past heroes.

Instead, party leaders were searching for a new beginning. Said Democratic chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr.:

``We must reclaim our rightful political heritage as a party unafraid of change and unafraid of the future. . . . We should be . . . bold and imaginative.''

Democratic officials hope they can draw on the party's tremendous strengths in states, cities, and counties to rebuild at the national level. To do this, they are trying to involve local officials in the rebuilding process.

Mr. Kirk called together dozens of these officials on Wednesday under the aegis of the newly formed Democratic Policy Commission.

It will be the job of the commission, directed by former Utah Gov. Scott M. Matheson, to explore new ideas for the party, and to showcase its emerging leadership in time for the 1986 and '88 elections.

Dozens of Democrats took the floor during the initial meeting here. Chairman Kirk cautioned them that in searching for new ideas, they should remember that ``the last thing this country needs is two Republican parties.''

The Democratic Party needs to find its own path to the future without aping the GOP.

Even so, elected officials often sounded themes that echoed those of the Republicans: the need for a strong defense; fiscal responsibility; the need to sharpen the government's role; the need to infuse the American people with hope and patriotism and to encourage family values; the need to avoid nay-saying.

At the same time, officials are seeing signs of Republican weakness.

William Nordhaus of Yale University told the conference that Reagan economic policies are running out of time. By the end of this decade, he said, the United States will have accumulated $500 billion to $800 billion in foreign debt. That obligation will put a tremendous burden on American future workers, who will have to export $40 billion to $100 billion worth of goods per year just to pay the interest on the debt.

Dr. Nordhaus raised the specter of an America in the late 1980s whose own domestic policies could be subject to influence from foreign creditors, just as some debt-ridden third-world economies are today.

Throughout the conference, Democrats indicated a willingness to face their problems.

Former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., for example, said the party has a need for balance in its policies. Concern must be raised about the dangers of nuclear war, for example; but the party must also show that it genuinely cares about maintaining a strong defense.

Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti of Massachusetts said that too often the party fails to address the problems of the middle-class taxpayer, who ``pays for all these programs.''

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