Jesse, discipline, and change

THREE forces have dominated the Democratic convention in Atlanta: the stirring rhetoric and presence of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, runner-up for both places on the ticket; an unfamiliar party discipline; and a conviction that the Democrats can benefit from the public's readiness for change. Mr. Jackson's stunning performance Tuesday night was a dramatic high point of the convention. But it only underscored the second 1988 Democratic phenomenon: discipline. The prospect of victory in November has induced party regulars to remove impediments to success. This is seen in the platform's avoidance of attackable words like ``taxes,'' in the strategic choice of Lloyd Bentsen for vice-president, in the comportment of delegates on the floor. Heads must govern hearts, Democrats perceive, if they're to take advantage of Ronald Reagan's retirement.

George Bush looks vulnerable. No party has kept the White House for more than eight years since 1952.

But beyond these factors, the Democrats see a wider set of circumstances helping them. The electorate appears ready for political change. It wants the economic recovery to continue; it worries that it won't. By 2 to 1, swing voters prefer a change from Reagan policies, even though these have produced low inflation and low unemployment, according to a survey released yesterday by the Democratic National Committee. But the public wants ``safe'' change - hence the stress on Michael Dukakis's management style, integrity, and frugal habits.

Affection for Mr. Reagan continues, but his image of competence has been undermined by the Iran-contra affair, the Pentagon procurement scandal, the Edwin Meese embarrassment, and so forth. Add to this an uneasy feeling that Reagan's policies no longer suit a changing economic and social world. The public sees defense spending as taking resources away from health care and day care.

The electorate itself may be changing. The ``GOP lock'' on the presidency may be slipping. Pollster I.A. Lewis thinks a series of ``contestable'' elections may have begun - and will continue until a new charismatic leader emerges or a major realigning event occurs.

Some Democrats post serious caveats. Mr. Dukakis will have to hold up to a rising level of scrutiny. Mr. Bush may be the candidate of the status quo, but he's better known. Will Dukakis make use of the presidential debates this fall to inspire confidence in his own leadership?

Will Bush be able to play on latent doubts about the Democrats? The party may have suppressed its specific spending ambitions in writing a platform. But if elected, would Dukakis himself be disciplined enough to resist the demands of constituencies like educators and labor?

Some Democrats in Atlanta see a recession ahead. They fear that Dukakis, if elected, would be made the fall guy. They do think he can appeal to the ``Joe Lunch Pail'' Democrat who has been returning to the fold. And they see him as a ``yuppie generation'' candidate who can attract enough suburban voters for a narrow victory margin. But they are unsure he can provide a vision of what the forces of change will require of America's leader.

The evidence of change is there. Two-paycheck families are only one manifestation of a fundamental shift from an industrial to a service economy. Women's role in the work force is changing. The baby-boom generation's standard of living is in decline. Access to personal computers is creating an educational elite - an undemocratic outcome that reinforces the gap between rich and poor.

People may need new goals to motivate them in a world of uncertain social and family circumstances. Political adjustments may not be enough. ``An ethical perestroika is emerging,'' Mr. Lewis says, ``as economic goals become more elusive and less satisfying.''

Are the Dukakis Democrats ready to lead through this period of change and uncertainty? Is ``safe change,'' an emphasis on managerial style, enough?

George Bush, meanwhile, will counter with the need for ``safe continuity.'' But that is next month's argument, to be made by the GOP in New Orleans.

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