AT first glance the picture seems absurd and incongruous - the governor of Massachusetts flanked on one side by an elegant conservative from Houston and on the other by the passionate populist from the black ghettos of Chicago. How can the two, Lloyd Bentsen and Jesse Jackson, be harnessed together in the same party and in the same political campaign? But there they were in Atlanta, together on the same platform and in the same picture, brought together by a political manipulator named Michael Dukakis, who, by this achievement, had converted a political fumble into a political gain of considerable, perhaps even decisive, importance.

Add that it is totally in the tradition of the Democratic Party, which has often been a seemingly incongruous coalition of opposites and which has won elections best when it has managed to bring together left and right, conservative and liberal, landed aristocrats and landless slum dwellers.

In fact, what we know today as the Democratic Party was founded precisely that way.

The American system of two opposing political parties dates from a deep rift in George Washington's first Cabinet. It contained two men who differed, vehemently, over almost every issue of both domestic and foreign policy. Alexander Hamilton was leader of the ``federalist'' faction. Thomas Jefferson became the leader of what was first known as an ``anti-federalist'' faction. It became eventually today's Democratic Party.

In the summer of 1791 Jefferson and his friend and fellow Virginian James Madison took a trip north. They called it ``botanizing.'' They visited with Gov. George Clinton and Clinton's political associate, Aaron Burr, who were ``anti-federalists.'' Hamilton, as secretary of the Treasury, had jobs to offer. He was giving the federal patronage in New York State to the rival Schuyler faction. Hamilton had married a Schuyler.

Burr had ``discovered the values'' of a New York City institution known as the ``Sons of St. Tammany'' (I am quoting here from Samuel Eliot Morison's ``History of the American People,'' Page 331). Thus was forged an incongruous alliance between the landed aristocracy of the Old South (Jefferson and Madison) and the politicians of the working and slum dwelling poor of New York City. Morison wrote:

``This alliance set the pattern of the Jeffersonian Republican party and its successors. Until 1964 the `Solid South,' Tammany Hall, and other big city political machines have been the principal supporters of the Democratic Party.''

Can that pattern be reestablished? Obviously, that is what Michael Dukakis is trying to do. Senator Bentsen would have been a congenial companion with Jefferson and Madison on their ``botanizing'' expedition to New York in the summer of 1791. And the Rev. Jesse Jackson could have had instant political communion with Clinton and Burr.

The Democratic Party must have a conservative wing to win elections. But it must also have the city slums and ghettos. Governor Dukakis must have both a Bentsen and a Jackson.

We often hear the cry from academic intellectuals for ``significant politics.'' By that they mean a party truly of the right and another truly of the left. But American experience indicates that that system, common in Europe, somehow does not work well in the United States. Barry Goldwater tried it in 1964, and lost. George McGovern tried it in 1972 and lost, as decisively.

In 1976 Jimmy Carter revived the old Democratic formula. He was no liberal by Washington standards. Walter Mondale was too much of a Northern liberal to do it in 1984. But might Mr. Dukakis do it in 1988? He may sound like a liberal in Ronald Reagan's ears, but he is about as far to the right as a politician can go in Massachusetts and survive. And now he has acquired a Texas conservative as a running mate, without alienating the populist left led by Jackson.

It is a time-tested formula.

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