THERE'S a joke Democrats are telling:
One man asked another why he was a Democrat. "Because my daddy and my granddaddy were," came the reply.
"Is that all?" the first man responded. "what if your daddy and granddaddy had been horse thieves?"
"Then," said the second man, "I guess I'd be a Republican."
No doubt Republicans tell the joke with the party names reversed. But it's a serious matter to both Parties that nowadays, many voters don't feel compelled by family tradition or anything else to affiliate with either the Donkeys or the Elephants.
"I can't tell much difference," says David Parkinson, a shoe salesman in Arkansas.
"It's hard to distinguish between the two [parties] at this point," says Tom D'Amore, a fellow at the Harvard School of Government's Institute of Politics.
Mr. D'Amore blames the desire that incumbents feel to win reelection rather than make controversial but essential decisions. D'Amore, who worked in Republican politics and state government in Connecticut, recalls meetings at which the participants would discern the answer to an issue.
"Then someone would factor in the politics of it. And somehow the problems became insoluble," he says.
In 1990, D'Amore helped create the independent Connecticut Party as a vehicle for former GOP Sen. Lowell Weicker's run for the governor's office. "The [Republican] Party didn't represent Mr. Weicker's views any longer. It was a way to make that point," D'Amore says. In his state, the two parties were more interested in preserving their own power and the incumbencies they held than solving problems.
But a growing budget deficit could no longer be swept under Connecticut's rug. Weicker refused to rule out creation of a state income tax, a stand that the major parties would never have let their nominees take, D'Amore says. He agrees that it was "relatively high-risk politics," but adds that "it wasn't worth getting elected if you couldn't govern."
Weicker won a three-way race with over 40 percent of the vote. By the time he took office, a projected $200 million deficit had multiplied six-fold, and a state income tax was the only solution. As the governor's chief of staff, D'Amore worked on getting legislators to pass the revenue bill.
"I can't vote for that. I won't get reelected," D'Amore heard over and over.
"If there was a clear vision of what [the parties] stood for, people would associate with them. But it's so blurred," he says.
One woman who was raised a traditional Republican describes her frustration with a party that she says doesn't address fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets, and which once favored equality for women but has now turned against them.
"When you look at the choices, you have to vote Democrat, because they're the ones that are on the side that I'm on," she says "But I'm really not a Democrat."
On the other hand, Republican party officials in Texas and Illinois note that conservative Democrats in their states, repelled by the liberal candidates their party runs in national elections, have been voting Republican in those races and are beginning to side with the GOP in state and local contests as well.
Richard Schwarm, state chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, notes both casual and seasoned observers criticize the two Parties for being too similar. Cynicism about political parties and frustration with the political process cuts across all age groups, he adds.
The decline of the parties has a lot to do with single-issue political action committees, says Karen Marchioro, chair of the Washington state Democratic Party.
"You can't have too many groups saying 'You're with me or you're against me.' After about three or four cuts of that, you've got yourself a problem," she says.
Republican and Democratic Party officials, naturally, see big differences between them. Republicans consider Democrats to be the party of the liberal left wing and special interest groups, which favor high taxes and a big government to be the country's engine of social change.
"Nobody would win with that kind of a program," Ms. Marchioro says. "What we [Democrats] want is prudent government and the proper priorities."
"Republicans," she counters, "appeal to the country club set and to the already well-off, and they pander to people that are frightened by all kinds of things out there."
Stereotyping aside, several issues divide the two parties. On health-care reform, Democrats lean toward government involvement while Republicans want to leave health care in the hands of the private sector.
On the question of abortion, the Republican Party is officially anti-abortion while the Democratic Party is pro-choice, although many within the parties differ from the official line.
"Nobody agrees with everything in the platform, including me," Marchioro says. As chair of the 12-state Western Caucus of the Democratic National Committee, she works to make sure the national party platform takes that region's views into account.
For instance, since trade is vital to West Coast states, those states don't want protectionism. Because political power is shifting west along with the country's population, the party must listen.
Yet many voters remain oblivious to the Parties' role in creating platforms. "I don't personally think party is important," comments Lisa Graham, a clerk in a Little Rock, Ark., jewelry store. "I look at a candidate's views, not at which party he belongs to."
Yet, Connecticut aside, it's the two major parties that recruit and run the candidates from whom voters select. That used to eliminate people whose views didn't match their parties.
"At least on our side, there's a little bit of mellowing lately," Marchioro says. "There's nothing like being out of the White House for 12 years to kind of get you back to thinking that maybe nobody's perfect."