WASHINGTON — Too much attention can be paid to how the Iran- contra affair, even after Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, has left the Reagan Administration dead in the Potomac. What's neglected is that all is not well for the Democrats either.
Three months ago, by contrast, Democratic prospects for 1988 were brightening. They had recaptured the Senate in November and public opinion had begun to move their way on budget and regulatory issues. Then, in May, the Donna Rice affair drove front-runner Gary Hart from the race, leaving the party with seven relatively unknown contenders and the prospect of a divisive, drawn-out 1988 nomination contest. And in recent weeks the Democrats have managed to:
--Orchestrate a snide, bickering, nationally televised congressional adversary proceeding with a decorated U.S. Marine war hero who personifies boy-next-door patriotism.
--Plan a follow-up set of hearings designed to refuse U.S. Supreme Court confirmation of a distinguished former Yale law professor and ex-U.S. solicitor general because his conservative views aren't acceptable to feminists, pro-abortion lobbies, the NAACP and organized homosexuals.
It's almost as if they wanted a two-part scenario for spotlighting party image weakness and institutional disabilities. For a while, Democrats seemed to be giving up their old 1960s and '70s jeans and anti-military maneuvers in favor of trying to rebuild Harry S. Truman- and John F. Kennedy-style appeal to Middle America. But the way their congressional cadres have approached North and the Iran- contra hearings and seem to be approaching President Reagan's Supreme Court nomination of Federal Appeals Court Judge Robert H. Bork, one can question how much they've really changed their spots: Appearing to bait patriotic military officers and seeming to pander to the National Organization for Women is still a dandy, do-it-yourself kit for losing electoral votes from South Carolina to South Dakota.
Recent party history is a problem, too. Since the mid-1970s, the liberal core of the Democratic Party has not been empowered to govern in Washington, only to harass, investigate, leak to the press or otherwise behave like a political guerrilla force. Centrist Democratic administrations were also afflicted--Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967-68, and even Jimmy Carter (witness the opposition 1980 nomination bid of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass). Yet it's been truest of the way liberal Democrats, particularly in Congress, have confronted the Republican Administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan--with a rarely abated mix of hamstringing procedural amendments, foreign-policy prohibitions and nomination denials or holdups. And all too often these efforts have been on behalf of the same foreign policy and cultural causes arguably rejected by the public in four of the last five presidential elections.
Which brings us to Iran- contra hearings and Congress's misreading of the North situation. Democrats were entitled to think that they had--and indeed still do have--senior Administration officials on the ropes for poor judgment, abuse of power and possibly unconstitutional behavior in selling weapons to Iran and then using the proceeds to fund the contras.
Yet despite these White House vulnerabilities, the Democrats failed to recognize they, too, risked parading a persisting weakness before the TV cameras. For years, polls have shown voters handily preferring Republicans on the broad issue of keeping America strong. Indeed, if the Reagan Administration went too far with secret diplomacy, to many Americans part of the cause lay in the way congressional liberals managed to deny the executive branch powers routine in most other Western nations. Capitol Hill carping sometimes even seemed negative towards patriotism.
Alas for the Democrats, congressional confrontation with North seems to have refocused these weaknesses. The hectoring of a beribboned war hero by two snide committee counsels offended many viewers, to whom North came across like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"--devastating Congress' cynics and smoothies with an aw-shucks patriotism and truthfulness. It goes without saying that today's "Olliemania" won't last, and these events won't dominate 1988 campaigning any more than firing the enormously popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 set the tone in 1952. Yet the North imbroglio crystallizes some of the same negative Democratic foreign-policy images.