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Kirk Argues Against Big Changes in Democratic Party

November 19, 1988|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

PHOENIX — Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. warned the party's state chairmen meeting here Friday that, despite the 1988 presidential election, they should not "fall into the trap of thinking we must change everything we've ever done" to win the White House in 1992.

Even before Kirk spoke, many of the chairmen attending the meeting--the first get-together of party leaders since the Democrats lost their fifth presidential election in the last six--had made clear that they did not want to change Kirk's status as national chairman. He had been expected to leave the job when his four-year term ends early next year.

A number of state chairmen wore buttons proclaiming: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Keep Kirk."

Paints Bright Picture

In his address at the meeting, attended by a flock of other party officials from around the country, Kirk painted a bright picture of the party, whose standard-bearer, Michael S. Dukakis, carried only 10 states and the District of Columbia against the Republican ticket of George Bush and Dan Quayle on Nov. 8.

"As a vibrant competitive institution, the Democratic Party of the United States of America is stronger today than it has been in modern political history--even when we had a Democratic President," Kirk said. "And you ought to be very proud of the leadership you have provided to make it so."

As incongruous as Kirk's sanguine rhetoric might seem in view of the party's most recent presidential campaign debacle, there are good reasons for it. There also are good reasons for the enthusiasm among the state chairmen for Kirk to continue in his role as national chairman.

Some party professionals think one important reason can be summed up in two words: Jesse Jackson. Emphasizing the positive side of the Democratic picture--their success in gaining seats in the House and Senate, and keeping Kirk in place--would head off what some Democrats fear could be an effort by Jackson and his supporters to take command of the party in the next four years and move it to the left.

In Strong Position

As runner-up to Dukakis in the nominating competition, Jackson is in a strong position to influence the future course of the party.

If Kirk should decide not to stay on--he said here that he would make up his mind after the Thanksgiving weekend--then Ron Brown, a key official in the Jackson presidential campaign, would be a leading candidate to succeed him.

In an interview, Brown said that his selection as national chairman could be opposed without seeming "blatantly racist" by some party leaders if they back Kirk's continuing in office.

Brown also contended that his credentials for the chairmanship go beyond his connection to Jackson's candidacy, pointing out that he had served as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1980 to 1984 and that he was involved in Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign.

Some in the party assert, however, that the idea of curbing Jackson's rise is only part of the reason behind the "Keep Kirk" movement. They say that Kirk's departure would touch off a bitter divisive battle involving various factions in the party, including not just Jackson supporters but moderates and conservatives.

Among other possible candidates for the job are former Maryland Rep. Michael Barnes, who has strong ties to Dukakis supporters; former Oklahoma Rep. James Jones, who would bid for support of party conservatives, and Rick Wiener, Michigan state chairman.

Kirk's positive view of the party's condition was endorsed by the state chairmen. They adopted a resolution that declared: "We believe that over the past four years the Democratic Party has been on the right track. And we believe that it should stay on that track for the next four years. We reject the notion that our defeat at the presidential level represented a rejection of the Democratic Party or the principles its supporters hold dear."

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