Democratic leaders must come to the rescue

THE party political system is showing its flaws. The Democratic Party desperately needs an outstanding presidential candidate - and nothing is being done by party leaders to try to fill the vacuum. The urgency of the problem is easy to describe. The big issues are running in favor of the Republicans for 1988. Summitry is moving into sight. That should give the GOP the important ``war and peace'' issue. The economy, with moderate growth and low interest rates, still is widely perceived as rolling along fairly well - despite the recent big drop in the stock market. And now the only political asset that seemed to belong to the Democrats, the ``trust-in-leadership'' issue, has been canceled out by events.

The Iran-contra scandal gave the Democrats some of the same argument that they had after Watergate: It was time to bring in a new administration that would not play fast and loose with the facts when dealing with the American public. It could have been a good issue for a Democratic presidential candidate.

But Democrats' ``trust-us'' argument has been lost. Whatever else might be said about what Messrs. Hart and Biden did, this much is apparent: Underlying their acts was deception, deception of their colleagues, deception of the press, and deception of the public. And now we find a further effort to deceive in the surreptitious way Michael Dukakis's aides undermined the Joseph Biden campaign.

Of course, Mr. Biden's fabrications and plagiarisms should have been unveiled. The voters needed to know. But it was the sly way that it was disclosed in the Dukakis camp that made the Massachusetts governor look so bad - and why it so damaged a party that wants so much to convince the public that its candidates deal squarely with the people.

So now it is becoming increasingly clear that the Republicans seem well positioned to hold the presidency and that if the Democrats are to regain the White House, they must do so with someone the voters will have to view as the ``better candidate.'' The big issues belong to the Republicans. As of now the evidence indicates that a majority will vote for a continuation.

It is true that among the current crop of presidential candidates and those soon to announce there may be the Democrats' ``Mr. Right'' for 1988. Indeed, the argument coming out of party circles is that one of the so-called dwarfs will emerge from the primaries as a presidential candidate who will, by that time, be looked upon as a nominee of tremendous appeal.

Democratic strategists point to Jimmy Carter as a good example of this ``emergence'' theory. But Mr. Carter was a different kind of Democrat, certainly not the kind that now is being fielded. And the aftermath of Watergate was still around.

Pat Schroeder, whether she intended to or not, underscored the unfavorable Democratic climate for 1988 in her exiting explanation. She's gutsy, bright, and energetic. But as she said in announcing her decision not to enter the race: ``I could not figure out how to run and not be separated from those I serve. There must be a way, but I haven't figured it out yet.''

She was concerned about neglecting her congressional constituents. But she also had come to see the political realities clearly and those included a very tough upward climb for any Democrat who wanted to make it to the White House.

That brings us to the vacuum. At this point, there is little indication that there is another giant-sized, charismatic winner in the current presidential crop. Indeed, it's more likely that the ultimate recipient of the nomination will be, in terms of garnering votes, another George McGovern or another Walter Mondale. Without the big issues, that won't be good enough.

Now in the bad old days when the big city political leaders had so much to say about presidential candidates, we would be getting some party action to remedy this problem. The leaders of yesterday would sit down and say ``Let's find a winner - and bring him in to the campaign.'' Political leaders would rally behind someone else. They would get the job done. This sort of political manipulation by leaders has been made difficult by reform. No longer can it be done in a ``smoke-filled room'' at the national convention. The primary system of delegate selection has taken over - a system that offers more democracy but tends to advance mediocrity.

But within the new system, something could be done. It would be risky. It might not work. But some Democratic governors, mayors, and other leaders could, behind the scenes, come together and agree on someone they thought could win - and then induce that person to enter the race. It would not be too late for a new entry. Political analyst Richard Wirthlin says a new candidate could still make it if he or she got under way within the next couple of months.

Some ``better'' candidates are out there. Sam Nunn is one. He showed himself to be persuasive during the Iran-contra hearings. Mario Cuomo obviously possesses that ``something extra.'' And Bill Bradley might well have that magic the party needs. There may be others.

Could the ``nos'' of Messrs. Nunn, Cuomo, and Bradley on running be changed? Pressure applied by a group of party leaders would probably do it. It would be in the nature of a party draft.

The party should address this problem or write off its prospects of regaining the presidency until 1992 - when the Republicans might still retain the issues edge.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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