Democrats, left and right, searching for a comeback formula. Party's left wing takes stage this week; populists are in the wings

Everybody, it seems, wants to save the Democratic Party. Southerners and Northerners, liberals and conservatives, they're all rushing forward with ideas, plans, strategies. Even actors are getting into the act. Says Hollywood's Ed Asner:

``Those Democrats who are Reagan clones . . . only hurt the party and make it less likely that it can win.''

The next group to march into Washington promising to rescue the party in this age of Reaganism is the Democratic left wing, which will hold its first ``New Directions'' conference May 2-4. Its slogan: ``Because one Republican Party is more than enough.''

Hundreds of New Directions activists will hear from Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine; Michael Harrington, cochairman of the Democratic Socialists of America; Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D) of California, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Next week agrarian reformers, under the banner of the ``New Populist Forum,'' roar into town to denounce big business, big banks, and high interest rates -- and Republicans.

The populists, led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, Rep. Lane Evans (D) of Illinois, and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, argue that a grass-roots revolt now under way could sweep Reaganism from power.

But that isn't all. Other advice for Democrats is pouring forth from both left and right.

The Rev. Mr. Jackson's Rainbow Coalition recently rallied in Washington with criticism of President Reagan's raid against Libya. And it urged Democrats to return to tried-and-true big government principles.

Before that, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority urged the party to go back to the strong military and foreign policy stands of the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington and President John F. Kennedy.

Southern and Western Democrats, meanwhile, have been criss-crossing the nation under the title ``The Democratic Leadership Council.''

They want Democratic policies that will bring the voters of those two regions back into the party. Only then can the party recapture the White House, they argue.

All this fuss makes some Democratic Party leaders shudder. They know the party must change. But the babble of voices sends a confusing message to the electorate.

The party's task is this: The Reagan revolution has helped Republicans capture the vote of white Southerners, blue-collar ethnics, and young people. Young voters, in fact, are the group most solidly behind the GOP. This bodes poorly for the future of the Democratic Party, unless it can quickly reverse current trends.

Horace Busby, a longtime observer of Democratic Party politics (he served in the White House with President Lyndon B. Johnson) says party leaders are particularly concerned about groups such as New Directions.

The party, he says, has suffered politically ever since the late 1960s because of its outspoken left wing.

``The public reacts to Gloria Steinem or Jane Fonda in terms that have nothing to do with mainstream Democrats,'' says Mr. Busby.

``These people use a lot of anti-Reagan rhetoric, they sound as if they don't support the United States, and all that perpetuates an image which has been very crippling to the Democratic Party. That's one of the things that the Democratic Leadership Council and other people worry about. . . . These unilateral disarmament people muck up the Democratic image.''

Indeed, could a Democratic Party that advocates a nuclear freeze, a pullout in Central America, greater spending in Washington, and a sharply reduced military budget win back America's voters?

Michael Harrington, who convened the New Directions conference, thinks it could.

The issue that unites the left, Mr. Harrington says, is economic policy. ``Reagan economics has failed, and will fail even more spectacularly in the future,'' he says.

But Democrats have not exploited the issue, he charges. The party has been ``miserable, ideologically bankrupt, unprincipled, and almost nonexistent'' in the face of Reaganism, he charges. Yet, he says, ``the Democratic Party is also the only game in town.''

Harrington laments that of all the Democrats mentioned for the 1988 presidential race, only one is a liberal -- Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York.

The rest, like Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, former Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, US Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, ``are all well to the right of center on economic issues. They are all trying to repudiate even . . . the Great Society and the war on poverty.''

Expanding the party requires new initiatives, says Harrington. It's time to go beyond Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson.

``The old wisdom . . . is simply not enough any more,'' he says.

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