PHILADELPHIA — At first glance, Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown's advice to party leaders to put increased emphasis on the West and South in trying to reverse the Democrats' long presidential slump might have seemed unremarkable.
But the context of his comments, offered here Saturday at the conclusion of a two-day conference on Democratic issues and strategy, could have considerable bearing on the party's future. Brown, the Democrats' first black chairman, has long been closely linked to the party's traditional liberal base in the North and industrial Midwest, while the conference was sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate-to-conservative officeholders.
So Brown's suggestion that Democrats need to broaden their horizons served as striking reinforcement for the notion that dominated the meeting: the Democratic need to regain support among middle-class Americans if they are to have a fighting chance to regain the presidency in 1992.
Urges New Road Map
"We have our work cut out for us," said Brown, whose battle stripes include service in the Edward M. Kennedy and Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns. "We need to chart a road map to the presidency, a road that gives new emphasis to the South and the West."
By his remarks here and his very attendance from start almost to finish at this centrist function, Brown appeared to be subscribing, at least in general terms, to the diagnosis of the party's strategic malady held by such conservatives as Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, the DLC chairman.
Nunn, calling on the nearly 80 elected officials present to take "an unflinching look" at the Democratic predicament, declared in his keynote speech Friday: "Democratic support is hemorrhaging in the heart of the electorate. We are losing the working- and middle-class Americans who used to be the mainstay of our party's coalition."
No one here argued that the Democrats should turn their backs on low-income voters, blacks and minorities who make up their most dependable supporters. And some party leaders, such as House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, stressed the need for Democrats to maintain their base even as they reach out.
"To make a choice between the interest of median-income Americans and those of the less fortunate who want only to scale the ladder to join the median-income ranks would be an act of self-defeating folly," Wright declared.
Sees Necessary Choice
But Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee, conceded that at times the Democrats might have to choose between appealing to these two groups.
"Where the two conflict, as they sometimes do, I feel we have to reach out" Bentsen said. "When you've decided your house is too small, it's all very well to do some shoring up and strengthening of the foundation. But at some point you've got to build where nothing existed before."
As might be expected, this sort of talk did not sit well with one conference participant, heavily dependent for support on the Democratic base--Jackson. He argued that Democrats could improve their presidential performance by increasing the turnout of their regular supporters, a tactic which he complained 1988 nominee Michael S. Dukakis failed to pursue vigorously enough.
"We lost 10 states with 160 (electoral) votes by less than the margin of unregistered African-American voters in those states alone," Jackson argued. The Democrats will be better served, he claimed if they focus on the concerns of their hard-core constituents.
"What counts the most," Jackson said, "is not who leads us, but who needs us."
He was scornful of suggestions that Democrats try to broaden their appeal. "We have to determine which side of history we are on," Jackson told reporters between conference sessions. "If we are all things to all people, we become rather ill-defined, indecisive. . . ."
The argument that Democrats should remain true to their old- fashioned brand of two-fisted liberalism was also advanced by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. A DLC founder and 1988 presidential candidate, who like Jackson, is expected by many Democrats to try again in 1992, Gephardt invoked the memory of his fellow Missourian, Harry S. Truman.
As the Democratic standard-bearer in 1948, Gephardt recalled, Truman depicted the Republicans as arch-reactionaries, "silent and cunning men who would skim the cream from our natural resources to satisfy their own greed." Underdog Truman won a stunning upset victory.
"People say populism and saying where you stand doesn't work any more," Gephardt said. "I think it does."