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THE DEMOCRATS' DEATH WISH : During the Past 15 Years, the Party Has Fallen out of Step With the Country and With the Times

August 11, 1991|MICHAEL BARONE | Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics."

Return for a moment to a time when the Democrats seemed about to inherit the world. It's October 1976, and at San Francisco International Airport, a group of Bay Area Democratic politicians are waiting to greet the man who has been running far ahead in the polls for weeks: Jimmy Carter. The tawny-brown San Bruno hills loom in the distance, and the air has almost a rosy hue in the late-afternoon light.

The largest and the loudest of the group is Phil Burton, rumpled and always standing just a little too close to the person to whom he's talking. Burton brought the rough manners and leftist politics of San Francisco's old dockworkers' unions to the House in 1964, where he was a kind of pariah, one of a handful who voted to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee; standing here now, he seems destined to become House Majority Leader, head of a party with 2-to-1 control of the House. Next to him, smiling cheerfully, is George Moscone, just elected mayor of San Francisco in the first city election in which gays were a major political factor. Nearby are San Francisco legislators Leo McCarthy, Speaker of the California Assembly, and Willie Brown, who delivered the stirring "Give me back my delegation" speech at the 1972 National Convention. From the East Bay is Pete Stark, the former "peace banker" now on the House Ways and Means Committee. Don Edwards, the civil libertarian who, as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, helped lead the fight to impeach Richard Nixon, is from San Jose. And from the working-class suburbs of the Peninsula is local politico-turned-congressman Leo Ryan. Standing apart, typically, is Jerry Brown, at 38 already the Governor of California and a presidential candidate who has beaten Carter in several primaries, a new kind of Democrat with prospects of being President himself some day.

They stand waiting for a politician they scarcely know, whom they back more from a sense that his victory is inevitable than out of any political conviction--they approach this meeting with the cynicism of successful politicians and the justified mistrust of allies thrust upon them. In 1976 a lifetime of political domination and public policy making seemed to be ahead of them. The Democrats would soon control the White House, two-thirds of the House, almost two-thirds of the Senate. They seemed sure to appoint most of the federal judges and Supreme Court Justices. They controlled the governments of big states such as California and of most small states. America's newest generation of voters, the baby boomers, seemed even more Democratic than their New Dealer elders. Articulate opinion, in newspapers and on television, in the universities and even among many corporate executives, seemed solidly Democratic.

But for these Democrats on the Tarmac, who represented the disparate strands of their party--South as well as North, suburbs as well as big city, working class and Catholic and labor and liberal and intellectual--the disappointment and professional failure ahead was to be of monumental proportions. Some met tragic fates: In 1978, Ryan was murdered in Guyana by fanatic followers of a cult led by Jim Jones. The same year, Moscone was murdered in his City Hall office by a disgruntled former city council supervisor. Burton lost the majority leader's job to Jim Wright of Texas in 1976 by exactly one vote, and died of a heart attack seven years later. McCarthy was ousted from the Speakership by his majority leader, Howard Berman, in 1980, who then lost the post to the wily Willie Brown. Jerry Brown, reelected to the governorship in 1978, was unable to win election to the Senate in 1982.

Only Stark and Edwards still have successful political careers, though both have suffered setbacks: Stark's catastrophic health-care bill, enacted in 1988, was repealed in 1989 after a wave of protest from voters, and the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which Edwards shepherded through Congress in 1990, was vetoed by President George Bush as so-called quota legislation and is still the center of much conflict.

But the most monumental disappointment was the career of the man they were waiting to greet. Jimmy Carter won only 51% of the vote when he was elected president in 1976, and was turned out of office four years later by Ronald Reagan, a politician whom these Democrats and most political pundits dismissed as an extremist and a 65-year-old has-been.

What happened? What went wrong for these Democrats--and for the party in general? Why are the Democrats, who have won only one of the past six presidential elections, seemingly locked out of the White House and on the defensive with American voters?

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