EXCEPT that they lack heavyweight candidates, an agenda, and even a philosophy, the Democrats are ready for the 1992 election. Someone had better go wake up President Bush's reelection advisers. Has one of the major American political parties ever seemed so lost in the wilderness just 18 months before an election? The point is not that, as it stands now, the Democrats are likely to lose next year; the out party has often appeared sure to stay that way. What's different is that the Democratic Party today isn't even sure what it stands for.
This demoralization is caused by three consecutive landslide defeats, an incumbent president whose approval ratings are swollen by the Gulf war, and budget deficits that take away the Democrats' strongest traditional weapon - innovative spending programs.
Here's a game: Name That Audience. ``He urged his party to embrace a vigorous defense of US interests abroad, economic programs that encourage growth, and a skepticism toward the federal government's ability to solve many of the country's most intractable social problems.'' If you said a Republican convention, you lose. No, that's a newspaper account of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's speech last week to a conclave of Democratic moderates in Cleveland. Maybe the party should change its name to the Me Too P arty.
But what are Democrats to do? Some liberal purists want to cling to the social-policy visions of Franklin Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale, but look where that's gotten the party since 1980. So the party hunts, and gropes, and flounders.
The liberals have a point, though. Who would vote for an ersatz Republican Party when there's a real one?
The Democrats must stick with their traditional themes and strengths, though adapting them to contemporary conditions. The Republicans today are paying lip service to such issues as education, competitiveness, the environment, the family, and ``empowerment'' for the poor, but many voters are still looking for action in these areas. The American middle class is feeling vulnerable and isn't sure the GOP, for all its current success, truly has a vision for the future.
If they are to be a viable presidential party, again, the Democrats - like the Goldwater Republicans of 1964 - need to be a party of ideas preparing a long march to 1996 and beyond, with leaders able to think in those terms. They may even find that's an unexpectedly good strategy for 1992.