MARIO CUOMO might want to argue about it (the New York governor likes to argue about just about anything), but his taking himself out of the presidential race leaves the field to a new generation of Democratic politicians. Mr. Cuomo's instincts and reason told him that, between governing a dynamic state and the demands of full-time candidacy, something would have had to give - and he did not want it to be his family.
In not running, however, he may have enhanced his influence as a party elder. He joins Edward Kennedy as a non-running leader who reflects longtime Democratic values and has a national following. Potential candidates Jesse Jackson and Dale Bumpers can also lay claim to liberal Democratic traditions whose roots lie, since FDR, in the immigrant experience, the labor and civil rights movements, the struggle for economic justice.
But the party's future now looks more likely to fall into the hands of the ``new Democrats.'' The new Democrats talk more about tidying up defense forces and directing tax policy to productive investment; they talk less about relieving the indignities suffered by economic hardship and segregation. They would stimulate job growth through education reform. They see government as a balancing force within a free-market economy.
Gary Hart has been out front on such themes longer than the others, though Richard Gephardt yesterday became the first Democrat to announce officially for 1988. Both are from the geographical center of the country. The Northeast could have Michael Dukakis represent it; the East, Joseph Biden; the West, Bruce Babbitt. None comes from an ethnic or regional Democratic tradition or dynasty. The South, the most crucial battleground, has produced no sure candidate so far.
The Reagan White House's troubles may provide a protective cover for the Democratic candidates. Eventually a clear rival to front-runner Hart will emerge. But the contest may not get bitter. Meanwhile, Republican candidates are issuing calls for the secretary of state's resignation - a sign that the GOP's moderate-conservative split, papered over by the Reagan era, is reemerging.
Cuomo or not, 1988 could be close. Voters last fall signaled that change is in the air - a Democratic plus. And the Reagan leadership appears dead in the water. Still, a lengthy economic recovery must help the Republicans. And ``Where do we go next?'' appears likely to be the voters' 1988 question, not ``Where've we been?''