NEVER in modern United States history has a major political party entered a presidential campaign with as weak a slate of candidates as do the Democrats this year.
It's possible to conclude, of course, that one or more of the six announced candidates would make a great president. And it's certainly possible that the eventual nominee will some how manage to return his party to the White House for the first time since 1980.
The claim that this is the weakest major-party field in modern times rests simply on the fact that not one of the Democratic contenders enters the race as either a "Class 1" or a "Class 2" candidate. The former are those who, prior to a particular campaign, have already established themselves in the eyes of the country - friend and foe alike - as major political figures. Robert Taft in 1952, Adlai Stevenson in l956, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 are examples of non-incumbents who had
become leading national figures prior to the campaigns in question.
In the past there was usually as well a sprinkling of Class 2 candidates - not quite major figures but politicians who had earned substantial recognition nationally and the earnest support of a faction in the party. George Bush in 1980, and Walter Mondale in 1984, were Class 2 contenders.
This year the Democrats have plenty of political figures who belong in either the first or second ranks of presidential aspirants: Among them, Mario Cuomo, Richard Gephardt, Albert Gore, Lloyd Bentsen, and Jay Rockefeller. But when Cuomo finally bowed out last month, every one of them had declined to run.
The six who are running belong, in terms of the presidency, to lower ranks. However estimable Bill Clinton, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, Douglas Wilder, Jerry Brown, and Paul Tsongas may be, none of them now have broad followings among their party's rank and file, or have established themselves as leading national figures.
Before campaign's end, at least one of them may have gained recognition as a leader of the first rank. But that status will have to come during the campaign itself. Class 3 candidates have won nomination in elections past: Wendell Wilkie in 1940, Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Chance and matters of political timing play some part in this development. Six months ago, when many potential candidates made their decisions, 1996 looked like a more promising time for a Democratic bid than 1992.
More fundamentally, however, the fact that the Democrats find themselves in the unprecedented situation where not one established leader of the major out-of-power party seeking the presidential nomination is a direct by-product of a dramatic weakening of national party organization. It is a development that has gone much further in the Democratic than in the Republican Party.
Writing on our political parties in 1960, political scientist Clinton Rossiter rightly applauded the presidential nomination system for its "mixed" properties. It made enough use of presidential primaries to assure that the voice of a party's rank and file was heard clearly, but still usually left the final say with the formal leadership of state party organizations - operating through party committees and conventions.
This meant that there was a party structure which could look after the party's long-term institutional needs. Among these needs are nurturing potential national leaders and providing them with a base on which to build, rather than forcing them to "invent themselves" anew each campaign.
When, for example, a large segment of the Democratic leadership decided in 1952 that Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee was poorly suited for the presidency, for reasons both of politics and character, they had sufficient control of party machinery to award the nomination to former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson - even though Kefauver had garnered 65% of the total primary vote.
The Democratic party would not always choose well, of course, but prior to the late l960s there was an institutional party with enough authority and coherence that it could actually plan and make choices.
All this was swept away by the "reforms" that the Democratic party pioneered in the l960s and 1970s, which effectively excluded party leadership from the nomination decision and turned it entirely over to primary and caucus voters operating in a media-defined, not a party-determined, arena.
Today there are obvious Democratic Party and national interests in bringing established national figures into the operative pool of Democratic presidential contenders. But the party machinery needed to advance these interests no longer exists. As a result, we are left entirely to the luck of the draw of candidate self-selection.