One of the fault lines in the Democratic Party buckled slightly in a debate Sunday among the party's presidential candidates. A major challenge for the Democrats in their quest to recapture the White House in 1988 will be to bridge - or sidestep - the resulting fissure. The topic of the debate, sponsored by the Stop The Arms Race political-action committee (STAR-PAC), was arms control and national defense. The exchange highlighted the Democrats' awareness that they have to shed an image held by many Americans that the party is ``soft'' on defense.
Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee warned the other contenders that the reputation of the Democratic Party was at stake.
When asked by Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois how he could support the MX missile, Senator Gore replied, ``The question itself is part of the problem that we as a party are facing. The American people have been given the impression over the last several presidential elections that the Democratic Party is against every single weapons system that is proposed....''
Gore warned of giving the voters the impression that Democrats are ``prepared to go into negotiations with the Soviet Union on the basis that we are going to get something for nothing.''
But Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri said, ``When we take this rap as Democrats as being weak on defense - and we have taken it in the last few years - I've got to ask a new question. Ronald Reagan asked in 1980, `Are you better off than you were four years ago?' ... My question is, are we safer than we were $2 trillion ago?
``Was it strong and safe,'' Congressman Gephardt asked, ``to leave the barracks in Lebanon undefended? Was it secure and strong to leave the Stark undefended? ... Was it strength when our military personnel wound up in Grenada [and] had to go to a Mobil service station to get the maps to know where they were going?''
The congressman used a theme shared by a number of the other participants, claiming there is too much waste in the military budget. ``I think it is time to indict this administration and the way they have been stewards of our tax money to make this country strong. There isn't anybody in this country that doesn't want to be strong, but nobody wants to waste money.''
Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts told Gore he had ``better get his facts straight'' when Gore asked why the governor wanted to remove all American troops from South Korea and move them to Japan. Mr. Dukakis went on to explain his remarks had been in the context of criticizing America's support for a military dictatorship that prevented free elections. He said that if the South Korean government does not make significant strides toward democracy, he would consider removing US troops.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson tended to speak in bold strokes on the issues. When asked whether he would continue to modernize weapons while seeking arms control, he responded, ``I think we ought to modernize our approach to the world. ... It is significant that we have adequate and effective weapons in the field, but our real weapons are in our minds.''
Stressing his wide travels and association with world leaders, Mr. Jackson explained that ``the great breakthroughs for peace and security came through leadership initiatives. ... One cannot do that with a modern weapon, one has to do it with a developed mind and a will for peace.''
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbit attacked President Reagan's view of the world. ``[Reagan] believes that America is losing, he believes that we are under siege all over the world. I believe just the opposite, I believe that Marxism is dead, that American ideals are winning, that the world is aflame with change. And that it is only necessary now for an American president to step forward with [American] values.''