Judged by all the usual signs of political vitality, the contest for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination still barely registers a pulse.
No Democrat is stockpiling endorsements in New Hampshire or cash in California. Iowa farmers who have grown accustomed to months of slavish attention are bringing in their crop this year without help from governors and senators.
Four years ago Monday the seven Democratic contenders for the 1988 nomination had already gathered for their first nationally televised debate. At the moment, with only former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas officially in the race, there are not enough declared Democratic hopefuls to fill out a Ping-Pong match, much less a candidate forum.
But on one crucial front, the Democratic race is quickening. A group of potential candidates--ranging in ideology from New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin at one end to Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton at the other--are publicly engaged in the intellectual debate that will define the boundaries of next year's primaries.
Seven months before Iowa Democrats will formally begin the nomination process next February, lines are already forming within the party between two contending visions of the road back to the White House--one that says the Democrats need to fundamentally change their appeal, and another that maintains the party's problem in national campaigns has not been its message, but its messengers.
This is the kind of fissure a party can expect when it loses five of the past six national campaigns, three of them by landslides. That heavy legacy of failure--and what now seem like the long odds of overcoming it next year against President Bush--is shaping the debate now under way. After two decades of frustrating self analysis, a fundamental divide between Democrats--in some respects \o7 the \f7 fundamental divide--is over the explanation of what has gone wrong.
On one side of this division are the Democratic traditionalists, whose base is in organized labor and other national constituency groups, local activists on peace, environmental and women's causes, and among elected liberals at both the national and local level.
These Democrats most often explain the GOP dominance of the White House either as the result of Republican success at distracting the country with "secondary" issues such as racial quotas and prison furloughs or the Democratic failure to "nominate a good progressive standard-bearer who tells it like it is," in the words of Robert Kuttner, editor of the American Prospect, a liberal journal.
For this camp nothing that has happened in the past 25 years indicates any fundamental weakness in the modern liberal message of economic compassion and social tolerance.
Iowa Sen. Harkin, a likely entrant in the race for the nomination, unfurled their credo recently when he declared: "I believe the traditional values of the Democratic Party are fundamentally sound and have a broad based appeal to the American people."
On the other side are the party's revisionists, a less cohesively organized group that has primarily clustered around the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of centrist elected officials, many from the South and West. These critics argue that Democrats have contributed to their own demise by losing touch with the basic values of the middle-class voters that anchored the New Deal coalition.
Arkansas Gov. Clinton, who has been considering the race, nailed their challenge on the party's door in a speech this spring to the DLC conference in Cleveland. "Too many of the people who used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class," he declared, "have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interest abroad, to put their values in our social policy at home or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline."
On these differing analyses of the problem, these two camps build different messages for the voters. Those in the party's traditional wing--whose champions range from Harkin and New York Gov. Cuomo to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)--believe that the right messenger can win with a class-conscious economic appeal, a tough line in trade negotiations with foreign competitors, and uncompromised support for the agenda of the civil rights community and the other social movements that grew out of the 1960s.