Democrats Turn Toward Tradition

SPEAKER after speaker at the Democratic Convention here talks about a crusade for "change" - a change in Washington from a Republican to Democratic administration, but also a change in the direction of the nation's oldest political party: a return to the traditions and symbols of the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy.

Since 1972, the thrust of the Democratic Party has been essentially that "less is better" - less United States interventionism in foreign affairs, and at home a disdain of the "collective" national experience for a recognition of the diversity of the American people and a championing of the rights of all types of minorities.

Thus, the party, through its own delegate process, became an organization that essentially promoted proportional representation, with women, men, blacks, whites, Asians, and others, all tucked into one happy coalition.

Granted, the party has backed away somewhat from selecting delegates by numerical quotas in recent years, following the defeats of Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. But compared to Republicans, Democrats have continued to prize diversity - and interest groups. New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley was recognizing many constituencies of the modern Democratic Party when he noted in his keynote address that "African, Asian, Latino, and Native Americans are at the heart of what America has been and is.... Diversity is our strength, not our weakness.

But Bradley also spoke of the need for a fundamental reorientation - a theme often articulated by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Thus, 1992 is a watershed year for the Democratic Party - with a genuine attempt by its new and relatively young leadership to change its direction and redefine its symbols.

Clinton, a political moderate, chats about family values, national goals, responsible defense. Both Clinton and Gore supported the White House action on the war against Saddam Hussein, for example.

What is often forgotten is that under FDR, the Democrats were the party of not just progressivism and the masses - the working poor, laborers, farmers, immigrants - but also national defense and collaboration between big business and big government.

When America marched to war in 1941, FDR turned from liberalism to militarism, acquiring the nickname, "Dr. Win-the-War." And throughout the New Deal years, financier Bernard Baruch was one of many Wall Street tycoons who gravitated to the party of Jefferson/Jackson.

The Republican Party back then stood for isolationism and non-interventionism, while grumbling about the marriage of big business and big government.

When then did the older symbols and goals of the Democratic Party shift away and to the Republicans? Vietnam was surely the turning point and 1968 was the convention and the election that first nudged the Democratic Party towards its new course.

For those of us who were in Chicago almost a quarter century ago in the summer of 1968, the world seemed far from sanguine. The Vietnam War kept going from bad to worse. Lyndon Johnson was anathema to millions of Americans, particularly draft-age young people, who nostalgically recalled the idealism of John F. Kennedy.

After LBJ announced his decision not to seek a second term, the challenge for the Democratic Party was to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the Chicago convention and, somehow, get him elected.

If some delegates grouse about the mobile barricades and ubiquitous police presence surrounding Madison Square Garden they should have seen Chicago 24 years ago.

The Chicago convention site looked like a military fortress - and seemed about as friendly. A barbed wired fence over 2,000 feet long ringed the parking lot. Hundreds of police were on duty. Roadblocks were set up. Authorities had special hot lines direct to the Pentagon, lest the Yippies (somewhat untidy but well-educated hippies who favored "love-ins," "happenings" and street theater) up in Lincoln Park were to march south down Michigan Avenue or State Street.

And march they finally did, with thousands of people crowding into the streets. The men in blue, pushed to the limit and taunted with chants of "pig," "pig" struck back. Crowd-control experts later testified that the response of the lawmen constituted a "police riot." Few of us there could disagree.

Youthful protesters in Chicago had come to challenge the establishment. Humphrey received his nomination and lost the White House. The Yippies won in prodding party elders into a quest away from the political center towards the left; that culminated in the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, and - with the exception of four years under Jimmy Carter - five Republican presidential victories.

"This time we're going to get it right," Texas Gov, Ann Richards in effect told delegates here the other night - an opening night marked by the rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

New York in 1992 is Chicago in 1968 come full circle.

How well Bill Clinton's program works to shift the direction of the Democratic Party back to centrist symbols - a championing of collective national action, moderation on defense, and tempered liberalism - will be determined in November.

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