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Will the Heavyweights Please Suit Up : Democratic Names Hug Sidelines, Shunning Responsibility

December 21, 1987|DAVID AARON | David Aaron was a White House aide from 1977 to 1981 and a senior policy aide in the Democratic presidential campaigns of 1976, 1980 and 1984. He lives in San Francisco

With the re-entry of Gary Hart into the presidential primary campaign, it looks like the Democrats have died and the Republicans have gone to heaven. Republican candidates are chortling over the Democratic "circus," and predictably, the Democrats are starting to point fingers at each other.

Make no mistake, the Democrats are on the verge of a debacle when they should be smelling the scent of success. The Administration is wracked by scandal. The President's former closest aide was found to be a felon; the attorney general is the target of a grand jury investigation.

Republican economic policy lies in ruins. The party is deeply split and the candidates are bereft of ideas on how to meet the current economic crisis. Right-wingers accuse their President of being a "useful idiot" for the Soviets and a mere "speech reader-in-chief." The President's popularity has zoomed only because he finally embraced arms control--a course long urged by Democrats.

Yet there is no sign that Americans see the Democrats as a better alternative. Even among the party faithful, about 40% remain undecided about which of the current candidates should carry the Democratic standard. Democrats are blowing the best opportunity to capture the White House since 1932.

Why? Don't blame Gary Hart. He has sought out new ideas in public policy and fashioned them into a coherent program that could be important for the party's future, regardless of his personal liability.

And don't blame the "six pack" of other Democratic candidates. They have all worked hard in a numbing, often humiliating campaign, appearing in increasingly pointless "cattle shows" and "beauty contests" masquerading as debates. All are talented and full of promise, but most struggle for name recognition and the ever-elusive "charisma".

And please don't blame the media for the Democrats' problems. It is just too early in the campaign to be making that excuse. That Democrats are already doing so is a leading indicator of their despair.

Then who is responsible for the Democrats malaise? Anybody?

Yes, and it starts and ends with the party heavyweights who are sitting on the bench, refusing to suit up for the political contest that could shape our nation's future into the next century.

First, there is New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Almost everyone thinks he would have the best chance of beating the Republicans. The party made him the keynote speaker at its last convention precisely to give him the national stature that many of the current candidates still fight for. What has he done with his prominence? Nothing good.

He speaks of the need to build a new sense of family and community in America, but evidently plans to leave the construction work to someone else. He claims that he is not a candidate, but then he visits the Soviet Union and schedules a U.S. national speaking tour, canceling only when the overt candidates complain. He refuses to rule out a draft. Some say he wants to be President, but only on his own terms. That's just great. The party and the country are swirling around the edge of a dream, and Mario Cuomo dreams about standing in the White House showers singing "I Did It My Way."

Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) is another leader responsible for the disarray in the party. He says he is not running because he just doesn't feel ready.

Bill! Wake up! The '70s are over. So is the "me generation." I'll tell you a secret. Nobody is ever ready to be President. What if Charles de Gaulle, faced with the Nazi invasion of France, shrugged "Hey, what can I do? I'm just an army colonel." History holds out challenges, and leaders seize them.

True, Bradley is not a charismatic nor a spellbinding speaker. But for him that won't matter. People can feel his strength and intelligence. Besides, after the last seven years, smooth talkers are going out of fashion.

Sen. Sam Nunn (Ga.) bears responsibility, too. He is the leader of the moderate conservative and Southern wing of the party. No Democrat will be elected President without the South. Nunn's absence from the campaign is a major reason most of the declared candidates sound alike. Perhaps he could never win the nomination, but he could bring traditional Democrats back into the fold, force the other candidates to broaden their appeal.

And let's not allow Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) to escape blame. He felt compelled to run against a sitting President of his own party, thus setting up President Jimmy Carter and the Democrats for the Reagan steamroller. Does he think Reagan and the Republicans have done such a good job that he can now sit on the sidelines with a clear conscience? Like Nunn, he might not be able to win the nomination, but his candidacy would wring the nostalgia out of the party and force the winners to be their best.

Cuomo, Bradley, Nunn and Kennedy, new faces and old, are the national leaders of the Democratic Party. As such they have an obligation to their party and to the country to be candidates.

They easily match the stature of Bush and Dole except for their apparent unwillingness to assume responsibility.

Many believe some Democratic big guns are hanging back in part to see the Republicans forced to clean up their own mess. Franklin Roosevelt must be rotating in his grave.

In 1980 Ted Kennedy brought the Democratic Convention delegates to the edge of tears when he intoned, "The dream shall never die!" Where's the dream now, gentlemen, where?

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