Joy in Liberalville

THIS bunch here in Washington is hungering for the restoration. No doubt about it: This administration has made itself vulnerable, with blundering and possible illegalities. But a lot of people see it as a chance to regain power. The ``bunch'' really needs no identification. But the editor of The New Republic, Michael Kinsley, calls them ``liberals'' and contends that those claiming this ideology should openly, unashamedly express their joy over the possible discrediting of this President and what goes with it: an opening to destroy the Reagan conservative revolution and restore ``better'' government. Mr. Kinsley decries the notion that the responsible position is to hope that the Reagan administration won't be so damaged that it will be unable to function effectively from now on. Instead, he becomes a leading jeerleader, calling on his fellow liberals to be as gleeful as they like over the antics and ``pratfalls'' of the Reagan team, feeling no shame.

The liberal bunch inside the Washington Beltway had the power back in the FDR-Truman days, lost it when ``Ike'' took over, and regained it under Kennedy-Johnson. After turning its back on Johnson over Vietnam, the bunch has pretty much sat on the sidelines as far as the White House is concerned. It has provided a useful dialogue, through its representatives in Congress. But more than anything else, the group's inability to seize and hold the presidency has caused those of liberal persuasion to become more and more frustrated. They have often played the role of spoilers. They didn't spoil the Nixon administration. He spoiled that himself. But they helped see to it that no opportunity was ever afforded to let Mr. Nixon up off the mat.

It was the liberals in Congress and the Washington bureaucracy who did the most to make Jimmy Carter feel unwelcome in this city. They, much more than the Republicans, bad-mouthed and tried to discredit him.

Mr. Carter and those around him believe this to be true. The liberals don't deny it. They simply say that Carter had largely left them out of his administration. They would have liked him to surround himself with people from the Kennedy administration. But since he stayed with Georgians - Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, Charles Kirbo, Griffin Bell, Jack Watson, among others - the welcome from the liberals was withdrawn. Instead, they schemed to get rid of him. And the Ted Kennedy challenge to Carter in the 1980 presidential primary brought this divisiveness into the open, severely weakening Carter. Indeed, that opposition within his own party and the hostage problem combined to defeat him.

Who are these ``liberals''? To paraphrase Potter Stewart on an entirely different subject: ``You can recognize them when you see them - and hear their views.''

A basic liberal theme over the years has been support for governmental solutions to social problems - and backing for federal funding of such programs.

There is also an intellectual superiority in the liberals' approach. They see themselves as brighter and more creative than the Republicans - and feel that they have more intelligent people to bring to government. They may have a point. How often, for example, did Richard Nixon bemoan his inability to attract outstanding personnel from academia, asserting that most top people in the university community were liberals?

The liberals also contend they stand on higher moral ground. They point to their early opposition to the Vietnam war, which, ironically, they directed against a President whose views on social issues were very much in the liberal tradition: Lyndon Johnson. Today, they see themselves as out front in the quest for peace, and in the effort to arrive at some kind of an accommodation with the Soviets in achieving a nuclear arms-control pact.

Those are the people Kinsley is talking about. It has been terribly long since they were calling the shots. They want back. But they can't be sure that they can get a liberal Democrat nominated, let alone elected, in 1988.

In the meantime they will do all they can to blunt the conservative thrust. And when a Republican leader seems to take a fall - as Reagan has of late - they feel they can let off steam with a show of unrestrained delight. There are a few liberals within the Beltway who are urging restraint on bashing the President - but they are the exception. For the most part, joy prevails.

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

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