Poisoned chalice

SOMETHING curious is going on in American politics. On two successive days, two of the most interesting possibilities for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination have taken themselves out of the running. Let us take, first, the sequence of events and then seek an explanation.

At a breakfast in Washington on Wednesday of last week, New York Mayor Ed Koch identified as his two favorite candidates for his party's 1988 nomination his own New York governor, Mario Cuomo, and the senior senator from Georgia, Sam Nunn.

But on the next day, Thursday, Governor Cuomo took himself out of the race. On Friday Senator Nunn did the same, although leaving open the possibility of changing his mind later on.

We can start by assuming that Mayor Koch, who is both an astute and a successful politician, would not have put forward as his ideal slate for the Democrats the combination of Cuomo and Nunn without reason for thinking both would run. Kingmakers don't commit themselves to known non-starters.

A Cuomo-Nunn or Nunn-Cuomo team would be in the mainstream of the Democratic Party's tradition. It was founded on precisely that combination of Southern conservatives and New York ``pols.'' The story begins in 1791. Supporters of the new Constitution led by Alexander Hamilton were in the ascendancy. They were called ``Federalists.'' An opposition was developing led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Jefferson and Madison took a trip to New York to talk with Gov. George Clinton, who wanted federal patronage. But the patronage was all going to the Schuyler faction, into which Hamilton had married. The Clinton faction included Aaron Burr, who had formed a happy relationship with a benevolent society named ``Sons of St. Tammany.''

Samuel Eliot Morison, in his ``History of the American People,'' noted that ``This alliance [Jefferson and Madison with the Clinton faction] set the pattern of the Jeffersonian Republican party and its successors. Until 1964 the `solid South,' Tammany Hall, and the other big-city political machines have been the principal supporters of the Democratic party.''

Hamilton's Federalists ultimately became the Whigs, and then the Republicans. Jefferson's Republicans became the Democrats. It all began back there in 1791 when Jefferson and Madison teamed up with Clinton and Burr in New York.

The combination of Northern big cities with the old South worked for a century-and-a-half. Ronald Reagan broke it down, drawing many Southern whites over to the Republican Party. Might they someday go back?

The Nunn-Cuomo combination could have done it. It makes political sense. But obviously, the men in question are reluctant. Why?

Cuomo is 54. Nunn is 49. Do they think they are too young, or too busy in their present jobs? Or is it perhaps that thoughtful politicians are having doubts about being president after Ronald Reagan?

When the next president takes office in January 1989, the debt, already enormous, will be worse by another $300 billion or $400 billion. And what will be the state of the economy? Will the stock market still be rising and employment still on its way up? Or will the day of reckoning have arrived? Will the next president be wrestling with an uncontrollable budget, an unaffordable deficit, a tobogganing dollar and rising unemployment?

Of course it was under such circumstances that Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency, and he goes down in history as the rescuer of his country.

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Nunn gave all sorts of personal, family, and present-job reasons for withdrawing from the race for the 1988 nomination. Perhaps a real reason was sheer awe at the task that may well confront the next person in that often thankless job. Just plain prudence could explain why any man would be reluctant to take up the task in the wake of what is already a receding presidency.

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