Looking for fresh support, Democratic Party activists set up a voter registration table some months ago outside a food stamp office in western Maryland. The activists reasoned that anyone on welfare or food stamps would probably vote Democratic. But they were in for a shock. By a 5-to-1 ratio, the food stamp recipients registered Republican. ``They would sign up as Republicans and then drive away in their old cars with Reagan bumper stickers,'' says Terry L. Smith, a Democratic official in Maryland's Washington County.
Mr. Smith doesn't know why all those food stamp folks liked the GOP, but some others think they do. They say the Democratic Party has a serious image problem, especially on issues of defense and spending.
Lanny J. Davis, chairman of the Eastern Region Caucus of the Democratic National Committee, told more than 100 party activists meeting here last week that the national party is saddled in the public consciousness with four damaging perceptions:
Democrats are soft on defense and unconcerned about the Soviet threat.
Democrats favor wasteful programs and higher taxes, which lead to inflation and deficits.
Democrats are antibusiness, and thus antigrowth.
Democrats help the poor at the expense of the middle class.
Mr. Davis denies the charges. But he concedes that ``in politics, perception is often reality.''
Other speakers warned that liberal party activists are forcing Democratic candidates to take controversial stands that make it much tougher to win national elections.
Bernard Aronson, a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, charged that activists who demand purity on issues like arms control are crippling the party.
Mr. Aronson noted that the image of Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy and defense issues has been reversed from the 1940s and 1950s. At one time it was Republicans who looked weak, Democrats strong.
Under Presidents Truman and Kennedy, he said, Democrats used to say that the greatest threat to peace was Soviet expansionism. Today, Democrats say the greatest threat is a runaway arms race. No longer is containment the top priority; it is now arms control.
Under earlier party leaders, Democrats warned about a ``new imperialism'' from the Soviet Union and backed tough policies, such as the Truman Doctrine, to meet that threat, said Aronson. Now the party ``acts from fear'' with its new motto: ``No more Vietnams.''
Earlier Democrats built American defenses during World War II and stood up to the Soviets in Berlin and during the Cuban missile crisis. It was Democrat Kennedy who captured the White House in 1960 by warning about America's ``missile gap.'' Now Mr. Reagan has ``turned it all around.''
J.C. Turner, general president emeritus of the International Union of Operating Engineers, says ``militant anticommunism'' has proved very effective for Republicans. Reagan has been able to ``exploit the issue, especially the fears of the less educated.'' That's why all those food-stamp users back the GOP, Turner says.
Yet Democrats are hard-pressed to find a consensus on foreign policy issues. Hot spots like Central America and the Persian Gulf create serious strains between hawkish and dovish wings of the party.
Former Virginia Gov. Charles Robb told the meeting here that if the party is to develop a successful policy on Nicaragua, for example, it must put aside simplistic, cartoon-like images of the struggle there. The issues are complex. Yet many Democrats compare Nicaragua to Vietnam and would settle for a ``cut and run'' approach, said Mr. Robb. Others would rely only on diplomatic pressure against the Marxist Sandinistas. Yet, said Governor Robb, ``diplomacy without military pressure only assures power for the Sandinistas.'' He noted that his audience probably disagreed with him. To his surprise, the Democrats applauded loudly.