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NOBODY HERE BUT US Moderates

July 24, 1988|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

ATLANTA — Two Democratic parties were meeting in Atlanta last week--the Old Party and the New Party. The Old Party is the party of The Cause. It is a gathering of activists renewing their commitment to civil rights, human rights, economic justice and the anti-war movement. The New Party is the party of Government. It is a gathering of problem-solvers committed to growth, reform, management and competence.

Atlanta marked the transition from ideological to post-ideological politics. The first two days of the convention were dominated by the Old Party. The sessions showcased great figures from the Democratic Party past--Edward M. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale and Jesse Jackson. What do these men have in common? They are respected and admired by Democrats. They fought the good fight. But there is a curiously dated quality to their politics. They talk of advocacy, special interests, "us" versus "them." And they are among the most unpopular and controversial figures in U.S. politics.

Days three and four belonged to the New Party, the party of Michael S. Dukakis. To post-ideological politicians like Dukakis, issues are problems to be solved, not conflicts of interest to be reconciled. Jackson speaks the language of advocacy politics. "The good of our nation is at stake," he said Tuesday night, "its commitment to working men and women, to the poor and the vulnerable, to the many in the world . . . . When my name goes into nomination, your name goes into nomination."

Dukakis rarely talks like that. He speaks the language of regional economic development, centers of excellence and employment and training-choice initiatives. Instead of defending interests, he offers solutions. "It's time to rekindle the American spirit of invention and daring," he told the convention Thursday night. "To exchange voodoo economics for can-do economics." Jackson speaks to Democrats' hearts, Dukakis to their heads.

This year's battle between Dukakis and Jackson was similar to the 1984 contest between Mondale and Gary Hart. Four years ago, Mondale was the leader of the Old Party, the advocacy politician who spoke for "special interests." Hart was the problem-solver who wrote books about economic growth and military reform. Like Dukakis this year, Hart made no promises to special interests. His program was directed at national needs and priorities. And like Dukakis, Hart won about 5% of the black vote in the primaries.

The difference, of course, is that Dukakis won the nomination. In 1984, Mondale was the candidate of the Democratic Establishment. Hart was the insurgent. Between 1985 and 1987, the party Establishment saw the light and began lining up with Hart, the new front-runner.

When Hart disgraced himself last year, the party Establishment had no trouble finding another candidate who said the same things. Dukakis, the problem-solver, became the Establishment candidate. Jackson, the advocate, played the role of insurgent. Jackson's victory in Michigan this year had the same effect as Hart's New Hampshire victory four years ago; it shook up the party Establishment. And the New York primary played the same role this year as in 1984; it restored the Establishment to power.

The party Establishment wants to win, and they now know they can't win with a liberal message. They can't sell the Kennedy-Mondale-Jackson line. What sounds like "sharing, family, compassion and mutuality" to Democrats sounds like "taxing, spending and inflation" outside the convention hall. But they believe they can win with a problem-solver, especially one who has a reputation as a tightwad.

The widely proclaimed "unity" of the Democratic Party was an act of will. Democrats are desperate to win this election. They want to win so badly that they are burying their differences and obscuring their ideology. The word "liberal" was seldom heard in Atlanta last week: "Nobody here but us moderates." What was heard during Dukakis' acceptance speech were cries of "We're gonna win!" Democrats are in no mood to take risks. If they can't win this year, under these conditions and against George Bush, then they may as well abandon hope.

The convention was suffused with nostalgia for 1960--the last time the party held together--as opposed to the late 1960s, when the party fell apart. The emotional high point was John F. Kennedy Jr.'s appearance on the podium. The theme of this election, said keynote speaker Ann Richards, is "We can do better"--which happens to have been the theme of the 1960 J.F.K. campaign. And when Dukakis announced his choice of Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, he explicitly evoked the image of the 1960 Kennedy-Lyndon B. Johnson ticket.

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