Postwar Party Games

March 07, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. All eyes here are on the shattered, smoldering infrastructure, the twisted pile of blasted hopes. Iraq? No, the Democratic Party.

Last August 1, which now seems light years away, President Bush was stuck to the tar baby of the budget negotiations. He had jettisoned the one principle that had given him a clearly-defined political profile, ''no new taxes.''

Then came August 2 and the Great Clarifier, Saddam Hussein. Suddenly, Mr. Bush possessed what he had lacked: a clear purpose and convincing passion.

The almost party-line vote on authorizing the use of force has done to the Democratic Party what it can least afford. Attention is now focused on its national-security record.

And that vote has done for the Republican Party, especially as led by George Bush, what it most needs for its most cherished goal. That goal is not to win the presidency (Republicans assume that) but to win elsewhere, particularly in congressional races.

For that it needs a strong single theme of the sort an ideological leader like Ronald Reagan provided. The war may have provided it.

The Democratic vote against force was not a defining moment but a reinforcing moment for the party, deepening the already deep public perception of the party as semi-pacifist. That perception was fixed 19 years ago by the nomination of George McGovern.

Republicans have been dealt a strong hand, but they could play their cards too crudely. It is one thing to say that the Democratic Party is unrealistic, another to call it unpatriotic. So far, Republican rhetoric is tough but acceptable.

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, says, ''Democrats voted to position themselves to the left of the United Nations.''

Newt Gingrich of Georgia, House Republican whip, is urging local Republican organizations to recruit Desert Storm veterans to run against Democratic incumbents. He says that one party just won a war, and as for the other, ''the last time it was in power it couldn't get eight helicopters across the desert.''

Who should march into the teeth of such withering fire? Only a Democrat who voted to support the use of force.

For some Democrat -- the names of Tennessee's Sen. Al Gore, Arkansas' Gov. Bill Clinton and Oklahoma's Rep. Dave McCurdy come to mind -- 1992 could be a win-win situation. He might win. Stranger things have happened. Not often, but if the banking crisis aborts the recovery, this Era of Good Feelings will be brief.

Besides, if a young Democrat gets blown away by Bush, so what? He is not expected to win, and by going around the track he will hone his skills, sharpen his message and make friends for the next time.

It took George Bush two times around the track to win and Ronald Reagan two and a half, counting his 1968 effort.

History does not encourage anyone now serving in Congress or a statehouse. Before Mr. Dukakis did it, Nelson Rockefeller was the last sitting governor to mount even a semi-serious campaign for president, and he did not even get nominated.

The most recent sitting member of Congress to receive his party's nomination was Senator McGovern in 1972. Before him there was Senator Goldwater in 1964. The last time a sitting member of Congress was elected was Sen. John F. Kennedy eight elections ago. Before that? Harding in 1920 and Garfield in 1880.

But the nation needs a serious Democratic candidacy.

In 1984, Mr. Reagan coasted to a 49-state sweep while saying, ''It is morning in America.'' In 1988 flags and furloughs were sufficient to reduce the election to a referendum on the political culture of Governor Dukakis' Massachusetts Democratic Party.

If the Democratic challenge in 1992 is perfunctory and without relevance to the future, if it is too weak to influence the content of the Bush campaign, we will have the third consecutive campaign without a clear argument.

That would mean that by 1996 the country would have gone 16 years -- almost a generation -- without the clarifying conversation of a serious presidential contest.

If that happens, the tone of American politics will join the Democratic Party as a war casualty.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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