Parties Face Challenges as They Gear Up for '88 : Democrats Seek New Ideological Identity

Times Political Writer

When the Democratic National Committee met here last month to lay plans for the 1988 presidential contest, National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. proposed a code of conduct for candidates to restrain them from conducting "negative, polarizing and party-bashing campaigns."

Most Democrats agree with Kirk that party unity is a requisite if they are to regain the White House in 1988. But Kirk's idea seems to address only part of the problem.

As some of their strategists tacitly acknowledge, what the Democrats need more than guidelines to prevent them from tearing themselves apart is a set of guidelines they could use to pull themselves together--goals and themes that would attract enough voters to give them an electoral college majority.

More than a year before the official start of the 1988 campaign, this search for a new ideological identity that would replace the tarnished liberal image of the past appears to be the overriding imperative facing the Democratic Party and all who seek its nomination.

The urgency of the quest is scarcely diminished by the fact that the Democrats will not again have to face Ronald Reagan, who vanquished them in the landslides of 1980 and 1984. Spared another struggle against the magic of Reagan's personality, Democrats still must contend with the powerful legacy of his ideas.

Party leaders also caution that the damage done to Reagan's credibility by the dramatic revelations of the Iranian arms scandal may not prove of much direct benefit to the Democrats.

Not 'a Free Pass'

"The biggest mistake we could make is to view the Iran affair as a free pass to the White House," former Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb warned a recent gathering of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate and conservative Democrats that he heads. "It does nothing to prepare the Democrats to govern," Robb said. "We've got to earn the right to lead America."

And as the leadership policy conference itself made clear, at this point Democrats seem less sure of what to do than of what not to do in fulfilling that obligation.

Assessing the 1986 elections, and the Democrats' success in recapturing control of the U.S. Senate, Rep. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, respected chairman of the House Budget Committee, warned DLC members that this victory was "no mandate for returning to the style of Democratic governance of the 1960s and 1970s."

Democrats must turn their back on their free-spending past, Gray contended, and limit government to delivering only what is "essential" rather than the largess some might consider "desirable."

Seen as Too Hazy

But these and similar admonitions to move toward the middle of the road--heard often nowadays from party leaders--strike some critics as too hazy and too derivative of Republican beliefs to serve the Democrats well.

"If Democrats become preoccupied with graphing precisely where the center is," New Deal historian William E. Leuchtenburg told the meeting, "Democrats run the risk of losing identity." If the Democratic nominee is to succeed in 1988, he contended, he will have to share the conviction of past Democratic presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt's time, "that government is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution."

Although no one is certain exactly how the Democrats should go about adjusting to the future while keeping faith with the past, everyone agrees that the long-dominant coalition forged by Roosevelt needs to be reshaped and reassembled with a different ideological appeal.

Leading Contenders

Here are the six 1988 contenders who appear to have the most potential for taking on that challenge, along with a brief glimpse of their strengths and shortcomings:

--Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. With his "new ideas" challenge to Walter F. Mondale in 1984, based on limiting the role of government traditionally espoused by Democrats, Hart attracted yuppies and political independents. His main assets in 1988 are the experience and prominence gained in his first try for the presidency.

The 50-year-old Hart's biggest potential problem is the lingering memory of his sometimes-erratic behavior in that campaign.

--Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. With his thoughtful essays and provocative speeches, Babbitt, 48, could easily contest Hart for the distinction of being the most cerebral contender. His record in state government could appeal to those who want public service but are wary of federal intrusiveness and his Western background also helps him in a region where Democrats need help.

Starting From Scratch

But he is faulted for seeming remote and dull, and he must start almost from scratch in building a national following.

--Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. His rousing orations delivered at party functions across the country and his active involvement in Senate hearings have won the admiration of political insiders who say he exhibits the passion of the Democratic past, tempered by the moderation required for the future. Others complain that the 44-year-old senator is too windy on the stump and that his ideas are ill-defined, reflecting opportunism.

--New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. Although he shies away from being labeled liberal, Cuomo, more than any of the other prospects, appeals to a range of Democratic constituencies--city dwellers, Catholics and union members. He also is a commanding personality, a rousing speaker and well-connected with big financial contributors. But the aggressive New York-bred style of Cuomo, 54, rubs some the wrong way, and aides say that he has yet to decide whether to run.

--Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. Infused with energy and ambition, Gephardt probably has worked harder than any other contender to establish a preliminary network of friends and supporters. With his Midwest background and his pragmatic approach to politics, Gephardt--only 44--is viewed by supporters as the model of a middle-American political problem solver.

Known as Tactician

Critics note that he is better known as a tactician than a policy-maker, however.

--Black leader Jesse Jackson. Aside from Hart, he is the only 1988 contender who ran in 1984, and his supporters contend that the experience makes him more credible and more effective. Jackson, 44, has worked hard to broaden his black base by seeking alliances with labor unions and farm groups.

Yet many find his views too far left, particularly on foreign policy, and they also find it hard to forgive his past anti-Semitic associations and comments.

Among the factors clouding the competition is uncertainty over whether this field of six will get larger--or smaller--by the time the campaign gets under way. Probably the biggest question mark is represented by Cuomo, who, for all his potential assets, ultimately may decide that it is impractical for him to seek the nomination while governing the nation's second-largest state.

May Be Too Late

For example, aides say that Cuomo is not likely even to begin concentrating on the tactics and mechanics of a presidential run until next spring, after work on the New York state budget is finished--and by then it may be rather late to launch a serious bid.

And although Cuomo is well-known by the public compared to other Democratic possibilities, he has done far less of the precampaign barnstorming and face-to-face contact with local politicos that are needed for building the grass-roots infrastructure now required for winning delegates.

Two other potential candidates are Southerners--former Virginia Gov. Robb and Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn. But Robb says publicly that he does not intend to become a candidate and explains privately that he is probably too conservative to get the nomination. Nunn has attracted extra attention recently because of the judicious way he has responded to the Iranian arms crisis, but he too would have difficulties with the still- potent Democratic liberal wing.

Dukakis a Prospect

Yet another potential prospect, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, is billed as a leader who can reach old-fashioned liberal goals with more conservative methods. But Dukakis, like Cuomo, would face the problem of running for President and running a state at the same time.

Adding to the uncertainties clouding the Democratic competition is a major change in the delegate selection calendar. In what amounts to a regional primary, 13 Southern and border states will select about 30% of all Democratic convention delegates in primaries and caucuses on or about March 8--only four weeks after the process of picking Democratic national convention delegates will probably begin in Iowa.

This monster primary was created by Southern party leaders with the objective of increasing the importance of their states and region in the nominating process and of increasing the likelihood of getting a conservative Southerner nominated by the Democrats, who have carried only one Southern state since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976. But like many past efforts to influence the nominating process, this invention could have very different effects from what its progenitors intended.

Exposure and Momentum

Many Democrats now believe that the Southern primary will make the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary that follows it by a week more important than ever. They reason that only candidates who do well in those contests will have the news media exposure and momentum needed for success in Dixie's regional competition.

So far as helping nominate a Southerner is concerned, it is questionable whether any Southerner will even become a candidate this time around. And the relatively conservative candidates, such as Babbitt, Gephardt and Biden, may find it hard to find support in the South at the polls on March 8. That is because the Republican primaries are scheduled at the same time, and in most states conservative Democrats will be free to cast their ballots in the GOP contest.

Some analysts believe that the chief beneficiary of the new Southern regional primary will, in fact, turn out to be the last candidate its conservative architects wanted to help: Jesse Jackson. This supposition is based on the premise that Jackson's black supporters, who make up a substantial percentage of the Democratic vote in the South, will back him solidly while the white vote will be scattered among several candidates.

Outlines Emerging

Although these events are more than a year away, early planning is already going forward in all the major camps and the outlines of the order of battle are beginning to emerge.

Front-runner Hart has not forgotten that in 1984 Mondale deflated his claim to be the candidate of ideas with the taunting query: "Where's the beef?" Should that question be raised again, Hart is determined to be ready with an answer. Ever since the last election, he has been relentlessly developing positions on a broad range of issues, foreign and domestic.

Yet Hart's most vulnerable point could turn out to be not issues but character. Recalling his dissembling over his birth date, and his quirky responses to the pressures of the campaign, opponents contend that he is still burdened with what Peter Rose, an aide to Oklahoma Rep. Mike Synar, a Gephardt supporter, calls "bizarre personal baggage."

With his Arizona background, Babbitt is one of the few Democrats secure enough in his conservative credentials to claim to be a liberal. He will try to combine conservative economic doctrines with what he calls "traditional Democratic concerns for egalitarian values" to appeal both to old-line party loyalists and to independent-minded newcomers.

Babbitt has put in enough time in New Hampshire and Iowa, with their relatively minuscule electoral universes, to feel confident that he has the required skills in political "retailing" to pass muster in these two critical early tests.

Officially, Sen. Biden is still making up his mind, but most other Democrats believe that he has already decided to run and view him as a formidable foe. "He makes the strongest first impression in American politics," says Bill Carrick, political director for Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Others say that Biden loses some of his appeal on second hearing, because like a night club performer, he keeps repeating the same routine.

"He's the Bobby Darin of presidential politics," jeers Paul Tully, a veteran of the Mondale campaign.

As a House member, and not a particularly famous one, Gephardt starts off running for President with a credibility problem, his advisers acknowledge. He has tried to solve it in part by a frenetic travel schedule which, in the last two years, has put him on the road for about 200 days, a good many of them in strategic Iowa.

In addition to addressing party groups, Gephardt uses his travel time to recruit local talent for his campaign, with considerable help from his House colleagues--many of whom are using their own organizations to help Gephardt build his.

In 1984, Jesse Jackson ran mainly as a symbol of black aspirations. In 1988, his press secretary Frank Watkins contends: "If he runs, he intends to win. He won't be running for place or show."

Helping to make Jackson a more important force in the campaign, his supporters contend, is that he will be starting earlier, will be able to raise more funds and will be more experienced in the mechanics of presidential politicking.

But rival strategists predict that Jackson will get rougher treatment from the other candidates than he did in 1984. "Being nice didn't work as a strategy," says a Gephardt adviser. "This time, Jackson will be treated like any other candidate."

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