The Dropout Democrats

If the party's big guns don't try to challenge Bush in '92, I wouldn't give them the time of day in '96

Are the Democrats really dead, as George Will, without noticeable grief, argued in this space last week? Or are they just calling in sick? I think they're calling in sick, and I have far less sympathy for that-or even comprehension of it-than I would have if they had simply expired once and for all from an overdose of lassitude, irrelevance and used-up ideas. Yes, it is true that some-how shall we say?-"second tier" candidates are beginning to make candidate-like noises. But just about without exception the big guys, the ones who wanted to run and were expected to and had some experience in national politics, have begged off. It is appalling. The party whose theme song used to be "Happy Days Are Here Again" has adopted a new slogan: "There ain't nobody here but us chickens."

It is said by practically everyone and might even be true that the party has come to the end of the line on programs and policies that it has been plying in one form and another since New Deal days. I myself think that's right. What I don't think is right is the inference drawn from this premise that there is therefore nothing more for the Democrats to do but go lie down somewhere and quietly breathe their last. Programs become obsolete. The values they were meant to promote do not. Programs can and must be junked when their time comes, and new ones must be put in their place. The values that animated them will only be junked by cynics and opportunists or politicians too dumb to see that they need to be given new life, new programmatic form in a changed world.

If the techniques for trying to achieve more racial justice or economic fairness that the Democrats embodied in their legislation and rulings over the years have become by now too cumbersome, coercive and intrusive, for instance, and if they do not fit modern circumstances or address modern problems then the Democrats need to come up with techniques that do. And they have to acknowledge problems (and failures) that they did not foresee or take seriously along the way. For this they do not need new values-only commitment to the old ones and audacity and imagination in contriving new programs that will help realize them. But above all they need candidates with this commitment, audacity and imagination. They do not need a lot of guys at home hiding under the covers and professing to a terrible stomach ache.

I would think that real political leaders would be champing at the bit to do this, to take on the challenge of re-creating the Democratic Party's message to fit the times. And the collapse of the Communist governing structure in Europe and the Soviet Union should only intensify their eagerness. In the post-World War II world we have come to justify so much of our activity in terms of the existence of the nuclear-armed and ever-pressing Soviet superpower. We will now have to think anew about much of our involvement abroad, our attitudes toward governments whose salient feature will no longer be their relationship with the Soviet Union in the great international bidding war and power struggle. This is a moment when we will have to reinvent our foreign policy. Whatever the rationale for our attitude toward the Chinese government, to take a case, it can surely no longer be in great part that it is useful to us in twitting and counterbalancing the Soviets.

Why run? Now, it is true that all of the step-asides have had their announced reasons-not ready, not in it soon enough, not a good time to leave the family behind in a campaign, etc. No one can say they are not sincere in this or even that at some level the explanations don't make sense. It is just that they are not quite 100 percent sincere and that they don't make political sense: these are such personal, self-protective assertions, not the assertions of people who are driven by a compelling desire to lead their party or willing to make sacrifices or take risks to lead the country in a direction they claim is essential to its salvation. for if, as they uniformly protest, George Bush and the Republicans are doing a rotten job of governing, especially on the domestic front, and if, as they also swear, he is beatable and if, as most of them-eyes modestly lowered-let on, they do someday want to be president, what in the hell are they doing on the sidelines in 1991-92?

Well, we all know the answer to that. We weren't born yesterday. We can read the papers and polls as well as the next person, can't we? And so forth. The answer is that Bush is said to be unbeatable, so why run this time and blow your chance? And anyway, the reasoning goes, the party is such a philosophical mess and so splintered at the moment, what's the point? My own view is that while Bush is strong and the party is a mess, both conditions will only be changed (and both can be) by the emergence of a strong, plausible, gutsy and self-confident politician to lead the challenge. Or are the Democrats, as Republicans before them once were, becoming just awfully comfy in the whiny, opposition role, in fact unwilling to lead?

You don't have to be completely impractical to see the irony here. I mean: you can recognize, as I do, the huge lead Bush has and the huge advantage and yet disagree completely with the message the fleeing candidates seem to have drawn from all this. For one thing, their timorous anxiety is likely to be self-fulfilling. Meaning no harm to those who are about to get into the race, it must be true that they stand a smaller chance than would some of the guys who have begged off. And it is probably also true-a darned good guess, anyway-that some of those sidelines candidates are rather hoping that the Republicans prevail so that the way will be clear for them in 1996.

Finally there is the Jericho Factor. By this I mean just look around you at all the institutions deemed impregnable and invulnerable, not to mention eternal, that have come crashing down in recent days and years. The past couple of decades have been the decades of surprises; every ironclad assumption seemed to crash; every electoral upset you could imagine and many you could not took place-ask Imelda Marcos and Daniel Ortega and Jimmy Carter. And every structure thought to be beyond the reach of criticism and external pressure, most recently including the whole Soviet communist enterprise, was proved otherwise. In this environment, leading Democrats look at the Republicans and say, "Oh, gosh, it's just too difficult." If they don't try it this time, I wouldn't give them the time of day four years from now.