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Where's the Political Heat? Democrats Lose Their Fire

July 12, 1987|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a political writer for the National Journal.

During a recent California fund-raising trip for his presidential campaign, Michael S. Dukakis, the earnest governor of Massachusetts, offered a glimpse of the tepid rallying cry that may become the future of the Democratic Party.

At a Los Angeles forum of local Democratic activists, Dukakis was asked if he thought so many Americans despaired from voting because they believed state legislatures and Congress were in the grips of special interests. Since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrats have known how to answer that question: Hearty agreement followed by a promise to confront the big "interests" squeezing the little guy, the party's core constituency. But Dukakis never answered. He simply rejected the premise that special interests have too much power.

Dukakis's striking response said a lot about his politics--the dispassionate politics toward which the bulk of the Democratic field is drifting. This campaign is witnessing the full emergence of post-confrontational Democrats--pragmatic candidates who tend to be less polarizing, less critical of business interests and inclined toward solving difficult problems with compromises that avoid creating clear winners and losers.

What is occurring, particularly on economic issues, is the Hands-Across-Americanization of Democratic politics. Most of the Democratic candidates are building their appeals on the premise that everyone shares the same goals and need only be encouraged to hold hands and work together to solve the nation's problems.

Conflict is a basic fuel of political life, as prevalent as air, and politics is the way we resolve much of it. As the party with the largest natural base, Democrats have rarely feared conflict. Since the New Deal, most Democrats have identified economic enemies--primarily big business--to generate conflict that energizes supporters and cements their identity as the party of working people. It is Republicans, with their historically smaller base, who have tried to avoid elections polarized along economic lines.

The Democratic contenders still take hard-nosed, polarizing positions designed to sharpen the distinctions between the parties on national security and social issues--disputes in which their opposition is primarily ideological conservatives, such as the religious right. Thus the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork should produce verbal pyrotechnics.

But on international trade, competitiveness and other issues that pit powerful domestic economic interests--rather than ideological activists--the picture is different. If the traditional identity of the Democratic Party has been as the advocate of the working class against the affluent, the increasingly typical pose is as the broker equipoised between the two.

This approach turns the traditional Democratic presidential strategy on its head. "The Democrats may be taking the wrong message out of the notion (made apparent in the 1984 campaign) that the middle-class was feeling squeezed and neglected," said Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. "What they have done in response to that is to deny conflict . . . to deny that there are different groups in society with different interests."

The problem with this strategy is Democratic contenders face danger: In trying to appeal to everyone, they may succeed in not exciting anyone very much. "That's the dilemma of the neo-liberalism that Dukakis and the rest of this bunch are part of," said Prof. Steven Kelman at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "As part of this modern, very educated, let's-all-sit-down-and-talk style, it's hard to get people to die for you."

Deliberative to a fault, Dukakis epitomizes this new posture. Fabled for riding public transportation, Dukakis is populist in personal style, but his politics are almost devoid of it. Faced with controversial state issues--legislation regulating plant closings or a measure to require companies to disclose hazardous chemicals used in manufacturing processes--Dukakis's response is to form a commission with the concerned parties, legislative leaders, a few professors and state officials, and put them in a room to fashion a compromise. "I don't side with people," he said in a recent interview, enunciating a creed that makes him sound more like a professional mediator than a politician.

Among Democratic contenders, only Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and Jesse Jackson clearly reject that concept. Both unabashedly sound the historic notes of class-based Democratic populism. So far, Simon's populism is mostly empathetic: During the recent debate he promised to put pictures of steelworkers on the wall in the White House. Though Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware has also hit some of these themes--criticizing the self-absorbed search for affluence that Ronald Reagan seemed to celebrate, occasionally criticizing business management--but Jackson consistently offers traditional Democratic populism with a bite.

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