The Democrats in the desert

AFTER the fifth Democratic defeat in the past six presidential elections, state party chairmen have gathered in Phoenix to consider where to go from here. Not that their mood was totally downcast. There was considerable unhappiness with the campaign their candidate, Michael Dukakis, ran. But their discouragement over loss of the presidency was tempered by their good cheer over their congressional victories and those at state and local levels. The 101st Congress will be even more firmly controlled by the Democratic Party than the 100th has been.

If George Bush's electoral victory represents an endorsement of the status quo, so, too, does the reelection of all those congressional incumbents.

Americans should give themselves credit for doing as well with split government as they do. When France was forced into its experiment with ``cohabitation,'' there was some question whether the government would function at all.

But in the United States, split government has been the rule rather than the exception. And yes, it means a lot of things happen slowly rather than quickly, but that isn't a bad thing - it gives people time to consider all the options, and gives politicians of all stripes opportunities to practice saying nice things about their opponents in order to build coalitions.

All this said, we feel Bruce Babbitt may be onto something: ``The presidency is not just about bringing home the bacon. It's not a governor times three or a senator times four. It's about the aggregating issues, about the economy, foreign policy abroad.'' The Democrats, this former governor and presidential aspirant said, are not yet credible at this level. Ronald Reagan has projected a ``vision'' of America; George Bush has acknowledged that he himself has had a problem with the ``vision thing,'' but voters endorsed him as Mr. Reagan's heir.

The Democrats could have a hard time sounding truly presidential on both these big issues Mr. Babbitt identifies. There are some long-term economic questions that need facing, such as debt, deficits, the prospects of declining living standards. But the eat-your-vegetables approach to politics hasn't sold well lately - if it ever did. And the Republicans had good economic figures to run on.

On the foreign-policy and defense front, Mr. Dukakis found that one media-accessible ride in a tank did not put to rest the questions about his ``toughness.'' It's all very well to take a multilateral approach to foreign policy issues, as Dukakis did. In fact, that's the way we would have presidents act - but a truly presidential candidate must evince a willingness to assert American leadership on the international scene.

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