WASHINGTON — Pondering their party's future after landslide defeats in two straight presidential elections, many Democrats are counting on an economic downturn and President Reagan's eventual retirement to revive the old Franklin D. Roosevelt coalition that made them the dominant force in national politics for more than four decades.
Increasingly, however, a new breed of Democrats is making itself heard, arguing for fundamental changes in the party's priorities and political alliances.
"Clearly, the new leaders are coming to the front," says Ted Van Dyk, president of the Center for National Policy, a Democratic think tank. "There is no unanimity among them. But they do have in common a willingness to question old premises and to look for new solutions that may not be tied to ideology."
Among the new leaders, two are staking out particularly strong claims for the party's attention--Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Not only do they typify the new breed in their willingness to question old relationships and call for new priorities, but each represents a major political reality that the Democrats must face if they are to regain national power.
Babbitt speaks for the West, a region fruitful for Democrats at the state and local levels yet barren of votes for Democratic presidential candidates for the last four decades. And there is a growing realization in the party that it cannot regain its once-dominant position without attracting voters from outside its old bastions in the industrial Northeast and Midwest.
Bradley's authority springs mainly from his leadership on tax reform, an issue widely regarded in both parties as perhaps the hottest political idea of the 1980s. It may become a litmus test of the Democrats' willingness to change because many of their traditional constituency groups have a stake in the present tax system.
The contest between old and new is far from settled. Despite Walter F. Mondale's 49-state rejection last November, many of the doctrines he espoused are still championed by such prominent Democrats as New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy--though even Kennedy, the preeminent symbol of coalition politics, recently called for a reappraisal of the party's positions and its relationship with organized labor and other interest groups.
But for the time being at least, the initiative in the struggle over the party's direction has been seized by the proponents of change.
To some extent, they are following the insurgent pattern of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart in his unsuccessful 1984 campaign for the presidential nomination. But the new faces have the advantage of being unscarred by that campaign, which left a residue of bitterness toward Hart among some Democratic Party leaders.
Besides Babbitt and Bradley, these fresh voices include Govs. Charles S. Robb of Virginia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.
In the months ahead, all of them will be heard from. But Babbitt and Bradley stand out in this group because their particular backgrounds and beliefs seem well tailored to deal with the broad questions their party must confront.
"The long-term future of the party," says Bradley, "is not served by an endless parade of satisfied constituencies as much as by an overall message that is in the general interest."
And, says Babbitt, "This mule, having been whacked over the head twice, is now ready to listen."
The brie was on the coffee table, the Chardonnay was on the bar and the Hollywood Hills living room of Patti and Ken August was crammed with young, upwardly mobile Democrats. Perched on a bench, lean and intense, Bruce Babbitt was in his element and in full cry.
"The Democratic Party has become a cathedral of orthodoxy in which true believers endlessly reiterate sacred scripts with no admissible debate," the Arizona governor declared. "But a lot of people in the back benches of the cathedral are not listening to the sermons."
As a self-described backbencher, Babbitt, 46, says that he has decided to "walk out of the church for a while and nail my theses on meeting halls around the land." It is a message well designed to appeal to persons like the young professionals in the Augusts' living room, members of a group called the Lexington Club, who are searching for fresh reasons to maintain their faith in the Democratic Party.
Won't Seek Reelection
To be free to reach such audiences, who many believe hold the key to the party's future, Babbitt--though still popular with Arizona voters--announced last month that he would not seek reelection as governor in 1986 or run for the Senate seat that will be vacated by Republican Barry Goldwater.
And, without ruling out a 1988 campaign for the presidency, Babbitt insists that he is mainly motivated by the desire "to define the Democratic agenda for the next 10 years."