Scurrying from the dread `liberal' label

WITHOUT abandoning its liberal agenda, the Democratic Party is posturing toward the middle of the road. Party leaders do not hide the fact that they want to project a moderate, centrist image - a more conservative image than has been traditional for Democrats. This is seen to be the recipe for an election victory.

``The more liberal solutions enjoy the majority support at this convention,'' says Timothy Evans, a Jesse Jackson delegate and candidate for mayor of Chicago.

``But to make sure we send the right signals to conservatives,'' he adds, ``they're trying to balance that with a moderate-to-conservative thrust.''

Most of the delegates, while liberal or progressive in persuasion, appear to support the party's new middle-of-the-road pragmatism. Irwin Fletcher, an Oregon labor union official and a Dukakis supporter, sums it up in these words:

``Most of us, especially labor people, are moderate to liberal. But we understand that we have to win in November and we'll submerge some of our leftist feelings to support a ticket that can win. Most of us know that the wealthy can stand a few more taxes, but I'm not going to fight it out here.''

The broad and shortened party platform debated yesterday similarly reflects an effort to build consensus and appeal to the full range of voters across the country - not just to party activists and professionals.

Delegates to this Democratic parley largely espouse such liberal positions as a need for taxes to reduce the federal deficit, a reduction or freeze in defense spending, and a larger government role on the social welfare front.

``We can't have the deficit paid for by cutting back government programs and action that meet the basic human needs for education and health,'' says John McNamara, a Dukakis delegate from New Britain, Conn. ``Ultimately the social costs are higher if we ignore these needs.''

Kevin Brown, a Dukakis supporter from East Hartford, Conn., agrees that the party has moved toward the middle in order to neutralize any tendency of voters to support George Bush and a more conservative approach. He applauds what he calls Michael Dukakis's ``realistic'' strategy.

But, Mr. Brown says, enormous credit should be given to the Rev. Mr. Jackson for ``elevating the dialogue in the party'' and raising the fundamental issues that confront society.

``He's concerned about issues that are not racial but affect everyone,'' Brown says. ``People should not be ashamed to address poverty, taxing big business, drugs, education.''

A survey of 4,134 delegates and alternates conducted by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspapers disclosed a strong liberal bent among the participants.

Sixty-four percent agreed that taxes will have to be raised to reduce the deficit. Some 67 percent of the delegates polled said they would prefer a bigger government providing more services to a smaller government providing fewer services. Only 17 percent favored a smaller role for Washington, the poll found.

There is also a consensus that the United States is spending too much on the military. A high 89 percent said too much is being spent on nuclear arms, and 49 percent thought outlays on conventional arms too high.

The Atlanta newspaper poll also showed that 90 percent of the delegates think the government should provide day care for children; 89 percent want to guarantee medical care for everyone; and 83 percent believe the government is responsible for ensuring full employment.

While most delegates back Mr. Dukakis's strategy of projecting a moderate-center posture, the selection of Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate does not sit well with many, above all the Jacksonites. Yet party professionals are generally pleased.

``Jesse Jackson has brought out the people who describe themselves as liberals,'' says Betty Smith of San Francisco, a member of the Democratic National Committee. ``But the party leadership looks at winning, and people lose when they run in a very small world.''

To some convention delegates, ideological labels are growing less important. Comments Lynn Dickey of Sheridan, Wyo., a state legislator and Dukakis supporter: ``Liberal, conservative, moderate - these are losing meaning for me. I feel this group is left of center. But if you took the Jackson people out, it would be very moderate.''

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