UNDER the leadership of Bill Clinton, the Democrats once again appear to be a party with a winning base. It remains to be seen whether they can win in November, though.
In trying to convince voters "it's time for a change," Mr. Clinton has given priority to an economy in trouble. But central to this strategy is a lesson learned in the 1988 election: Do not get deflected by the kind of symbolic or "values" issues that blindsided Michael Dukakis.
It has not been forgotten how and why the Republicans, in their effective appeal to popular values, were able to portray Mr. Dukakis as someone who was outside the political mainstream on urban crime and violence, vigorous law enforcement, and capital punishment, as well as the potent issues of flag-burning and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Not this year, say the Clinton Democrats. The Arkansas governor has already sought to connect with voters in America's political heartland by confronting several social issues that are laced with cultural values - his emphasis, for example, on taking people off welfare and getting them to work, on putting more police on our streets to fight crime, and on the need for individual and community responsibility.
But Clinton is also determined that this year the Democrats must not allow themselves to be torn apart by an issue that inflames tensions and creates resentment - the race issue. The Clinton strategists know that every time it has heated up in recent elections, the Democrats have lost. They also know that to assume control of the White House they will need to win back (among other constituencies) the "Reagan Democrats" who defected in part because of race.
And how do they get them back? "By changing the subject," says political analyst William Schneider. "Forget about race. Talk about economic populism - how ordinary working people, black and white, have gotten screwed up by the Republicans. Replace racial resentment with economic resentment. Keep yelling, `Tax the Rich!' "
But is deliberate neglect really an acceptable position on an issue of such overriding importance and one that touches the concerns and sensibilities of every American?
In a speech on the Senate floor last March, Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey criticized both political parties for the "silence of distortion" that has shaped the issue of race during the last 25 years - the Republicans for playing the "race card in a divisive way to get votes," the Democrats for "suffocating the discussion of a self-destructive behavior among the minority population in a cloak of silence and denial." Apart from what the Republicans may do or say between now and November, does Clinton
agree with Senator Bradley that it is "time for candor and time for truth?"
The governor has openly tried to repair the image of the Democratic Party. But he has not indicated whether this also means rejecting old-line Democratic approaches and solutions to our racial problems. If so, will he call for a reformulation of priorities and strategies - or, as the Democrats have always done, will he blur or avoid altogether issues that are entangled with racial interests and policies for fear of paying too heavy an electoral price or of being charged with providing a cover for those w ho play on prejudice and hostility?
If Clinton should decide to break the "spiral of silence," he could begin by declaring that all of us for too long have been victimized by an unthinking tyranny of terms like "racism" and "racist." It would be foolish to think that racism no longer exists. But how many of our problems should be seen or explained only in terms of racism?
The Arkansas governor has expressed deep concern about the special ills that trap millions of black Americans in failure and despair.
But does he believe that the high rates of unemployment, illiteracy, drugs, alcohol, AIDS cases, and violence can simply be attributed to overt white discrimination, or that the black underclass would disappear if racism were eradicated tomorrow? The significant disparities in income and educational achievement between whites and minorities need close attention. But is it analytically useful today to cite racism or discrimination as the reason that blacks in high school and college generally have below-a verage grades and a high dropout rate?
In an extraordinary speech at Yale last March, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts spoke of the need to "build a new consensus" to deal with the racial divisions in America, "the most important subject we face today." But can we hope to make racial progress, he asked, if we equate fear of crime or deteriorating schools with racism "and then expect those we have called racists to invest in the very neighborhoods they have fled?"
Or why should those who have long recognized that black Americans have suffered from discrimination - and who support compensatory government programs designed to assist blacks in acquiring training and education skills - be regarded as "symbolic racists" because, like Clinton himself, they support such traditional values as increased personal effort, hard work, and achievement? Can we no longer talk about "individual responsibility" without someone claiming that it smacks of racism?
When former Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan told the Democratic convention that "we seek to unite people, not divide them, and we reject both white racism and black racism," she angered and shocked many blacks. In the words of one African-American leader: "Black Americans are incapable of exercising racist views because they lack power. Racism is power. By criticizing blacks for being racist," he continued, "she is apologizing to whites for something that doesn't exist."
But is Clinton willing to state publicly that racism is not linked to power but is a matter of attitudes, and that Ms. Jordan's eloquent remarks (as another black leader put it) represented the end of extreme liberal positions that have kept Democrats out of the White House?
Clinton has framed his determination to bring people of all races and backgrounds together around an ultimate goal - namely, a national standard that is blind to color distinctions, long the moral touchstone of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Why, then, not be candid and acknowledge that one of the costs of race-exclusive preferences in hiring or college admissions, as Senator Kerry has stated, is to "keep America thinking in racial terms"?
It's time for a Democratic presidential candidate to call for affirmative action to be refocused - to explain why moving away from policies that mandate special preferences based on race would not mean abandoning his (or the nation's) commitment to guaranteeing equal opportunity for all of our citizens.
When Clinton criticized rap performer Sister Souljah for her divisive and racially inflammatory comments at a Rainbow Coalition conference in June - and then refused to back down after Jesse Jackson lashed out at him - he took an important step toward establishing himself as a new and different Democrat.
The question now is whether in the months ahead, as the self-proclaimed "candidate of change," he will take the lead in providing some new thoughts on the critical issue of race and racism in a way that Michael Dukakis could not (or would not) do four years ago - by defining his basic principles and social values before George Bush and the Republicans try to do it for him.