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Simon's Surge Reveals Depth of Democrats' Death Wish

November 29, 1987|CHRISTOPHER MATTHEWS | Christopher Matthews, former aide to retired House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., is a consultant in Washington and writes a column for the San Francisco Examiner

The Democrats are back in their old groove. After months of self-doubt, they've once again figured out a way to destroy themselves.

The two magic words: Paul Simon.

For those of you who may have nodded off the past couple of weeks, Simon is the little senator from Illinois celebrated for his nerdish bow ties, thick-rimmed glasses and a political sales pitch that can be capsulized in a single word: yesterday. Not only does he say all the old things and make all the old promises about health, education and housing, he also adds a kicker: a guaranteed federal job for every American who needs one.

In addition to being a tad eccentric, and perhaps because of it, Simon is the hottest political property in the Democratic Party. In Iowa, scene of the party's first presiden- tial caucuses, Simon has leaped to the head of the polls. In a matter of weeks, he has accomplished what it took the previous front-runner, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, a year to achieve.

Based on current trends, it's not hard to imagine a scenario for the dark horse from Illinois racing all the way to the nomination. Simon is already on the road to knocking Gephardt out of the race. If he keeps up his current momentum, he will not only win Iowa on Feb. 8; he'll also run a strong challenge to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the next big Democratic test, New Hampshire. A second-place finish there would position Simon to split the moderate-to-liberal vote with Dukakis in the big batch of primaries on March 8. Simon could score just well enough to scoot back to Illinois the following week for a big win on his own turf. From there, it could be an easy sprint to the convention in Atlanta.

The staggering aspect of all this is that practically no one believes that The Man With the Bow Tie has a chance of becoming President. Not only would a man of his unreconstructed New Dealism lose the general election to Republican nominee George Bush or Bob Dole, he would lose in a landslide of Mondalesque proportions.

To many Democrats, such talk would seem not only defeatist but irrelevant. The fact is, the Simon-for-President adventure has nothing to do with fielding a winning candidate next November. It has everything to do with meeting a particular need that Democrats feel right now. That need is emotional as much political. The nation's oldest political party wants to feel good about itself again. It wants to believe that the civil divisions of the 1960s, the economic horrors of the 1970s and the political rejections of the 1980s never happened.

The Simon premise goes something like this: All the country needs to meet the challenges of the 1990s is a good solid dose of 100-proof Old Liberalism. All the Democrats need to win is some of old give-'em-hell Harry Trumanism.

The fact that these propositions are downright implausible does not dilute their appeal to the kind of true believer that gets involved in Democratic politics this early in the game. The more sober-minded tend to make up their minds later on, as the convention approaches. The zealots and the up-on-their-feet fanatics commit early. And these folks have open arms for a guy who tells them they've been right all along. What was good for F.D.R. and old Harry and Adlai and Hubert and Walter is good enough for them, and you'd better believe it!

Let me acknowledge that Simon is onto something. For better or worse, there are a lot of bruised egos in the Democratic Party. The folks who really care about the party, those who sweat the campaigns and bleed on election night, have had a rough time the past few years. Jimmy Carter confused and disappointed them. Ronald Reagan humiliated them. The new breed of Democratic candidates, still struggling to define themselves, leaves them cold.

So along comes this bushy-tailed New Dealer who flies in the face of all the bad news. It's not so much that he's older than the other candidates. Simon is only 58. It's that he evokes a different era. The bow tie, the glasses and the radio-age baritone combine to make a statement. Here's a guy who dares to be square when everyone else is trying to be hip. Here's a leader who writes his own books, picks his own clothes and sticks to his own philosophy, even if it is old-time liberalism. In a market saturated with Pepsi Generation types, Simon is running as the Coke Classic.

But the problem here is not the imagery but the substance. Recycled New Dealism may pass muster in the sentiment-shrouded caucuses and primaries; but if it survives until November, it will make the limping Republicans look like thoroughbreds.

This would not be good for the Democrats or the country as a whole. After eight years of brilliantly packaged nostalgia and policy drift, America needs a vigorous leader who can grab the helm. It needs to have people in charge who can meet the economic challenges that loom before us and to engage both reasonably and aggressively with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev on the world stage.

Say what you will about the difficulty that the new-breed candidates such as Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt and Bruce Babbitt are having in building a Democratic message appropriate to the late 1980s. At least they are trying.

Simon is the one lagging behind. He reminds me of Sherman, that bespectacled young boy on the old "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoon show. In each episode Sherman and his dog friend, Mr. Peabody, would transport us back in time aboard their magical Way-Back Machine.

"Where are we going today, Mr. Peabody?" Sherman would begin each show. Then, off they would head to the First Thanksgiving, or the Boston Tea Party or Custer's Last Stand.

Simon, with his Way-Back Machine set to 1948, wants to take the Democrats on the same nostalgic ride.

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