The Democrats are being warned: Don't look to the Iran arms scandal to hand you the presidency in 1988. You must convey a message about where you intend taking the country.
Peter Hart, a leading Democratic pollster, says that with President Reagan losing political ground - even before the Iran affair - the Democrats have a potential opportunity two years hence. (Reagan's health, P.2.) The ``major danger'' is that the Democrats will run on Republican foul-ups, Mr. Hart told reporters in a breakfast meeting yesterday. ``We may win an election - but not have anything for the next generation,'' he says.
As Hart sees it, the Iran-contra scandal helps propel to the fore a new set of issues in the '88 race. The Democratic agenda, he says, should include these elements:
The budget deficit. Voters showed in the 1986 election that they care about this issue and that the old theme of getting rid of waste and fraud in government ``will not sell in '88.''
Ironically, Hart indicates, the Democratic candidate could even advocate a tax increase (which Walter Mondale did in 1984).
The ``next step'' in the US economy. The electorate was ``nervous'' in '86 and does not feel confident despite the leap in the Dow Jones average, low inflation, and lower interest rates.
Foreign policy and national defense. The public above all wants arms control, and senses it will not be achieved in the next two years.
Hunger and homelessness. This is the ``sleeper issue'' because the public is bothered by the image of people living on grates. ``A year from now that [homelessness] will be in the political dialogue,'' Hart forecasts, and some candidate, Republican or Democratic, will be ``smart enough'' to latch on to it.
In Hart's view, because the 28-year-long political cycles of this century each represented a change of style and leadership, the next president will come from a new, younger generation of leaders.
The winning candidates will have to meet these requirements, he says: a policymaking sense of government; a feeling of compassion that knits the country together and does not exclude government from playing a role; an ability to communicate, as has President Reagan; and ``toughness,'' another Reagan characteristic.
Asked about potential winners in '88, he named two Democrats and three Republicans:
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who Hart said fits the ``requirements'' list well except for the generational factor, conveys compassion, can formulate new issues, and is a good communicator. But, said Hart, Mr. Cuomo also comes out less well in terms of his personal style, which is ``a little brittle.''
Chrysler Corporation chairman Lee Iacocca, whose handicap, said Hart, is that voters need ``someone who knows what is going on and can make policy.'' Mr. Iacocca is an ``outsider.''
Vice-President George Bush, whom Hart called the ``big loser,'' because he is ``standing in Reagan's shadow and needs to stand on his shoulders.'' Also, said Hart, Mr. Bush is unlikely to be the GOP candidate, because voters convey no distinct, positive feeling for him.
Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas, who has ``potentiality'' and looks like an alternative, Hart said.
US Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, who although unknown with voters is ``a great bet,'' said Hart.
In terms of the qualities needed for '88, Mr. Kemp came out a ``winner'' in '86. He has a ``good story to tell,'' imparts ``youth and dynamism,'' and has his name on legislation, the pollster said.
On the Democratic side, Hart suggests voters also could go for US Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri; Bruce Babbitt, the outgoing governor of Arizona; or Charles Robb, the former governor of Virginia.
Hart's polls show Reagan's approval ratings down to the mid-40s from his previous 60 percent-plus level.
The President will never see such high approval ratings again, says Hart, although he may regain standing and remain personally popular.