Washington -- ALMOST AS soon as he was elected Democratic national chairman after the one-sided presidential loss of Michael Dukakis, Ron Brown started pleading for his party to avoid a drawn-out and divisive fight over the 1992 Democratic nomination. In ways he never expected, he is getting his way so far -- and professes to be pleased about it.
Even before President Bush's popularity soared sky-high with the swift military success in the Persian Gulf, all those Democrats most frequently mentioned as presidential prospects were keeping their heads down. Only two long shots -- the 1972 standard-bearer, George McGovern, and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas -- are even admitting to exploring the possibility of a candidacy.
As the Democratic National Committee met here this weekend, Brown declined to send up the distress flag, insisting that the lack of a field of hot candidates suits him fine at this stage.
In fact, he suggests, "we got a lucky break (in the absence of presidential candidates). To have had four or five Democrats out engaged in partisan rhetoric during a very, very popular war would have been a disaster." He predicts that "by summer" a number of Democrats will be surfacing as candidates or possible candidates.
He has talked to most of them, he says, and has been able to track their interest by their travel (not much outside their own states), staff additions and activities and contacts with potential money-raisers. He specifically includes the party's most conspicuous Hamlet, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, as one who will be looking more seriously at a candidacy once he gets his current state budget problem resolved.
Brown says he bases his optimism on the conviction that the Democratic Party is still the party of the working men and women of America and that with the war over they will look to the Democrats to address domestic ills. This is, to be sure, the hope to which Democrats have clung all through their party's decline in national elections, but Brown says that's because "when the message gets garbled with a lot of other stuff, 50-page position papers, it doesn't work." The party, he says, needs "to stick to a clear, concise message" to bring traditional Democratic voters home and to reach out to new ones.
It sounds like old hat, but Brown insists that Democrats who fell for the Ronald Reagan siren song are "re-evaluating the 1980s" and see it as "a period of retreat and erosion" at home. "Just as happened last fall," he says, referring to Democratic congressional victories, "when voters focus on bread-and-butter issues, we're going to do well." Knowing what the public perception of his party's condition is these days he adds, "This is not an Alice-in-Wonderland thing."
If there is one development that sustains Brown's optimism, it is the work the DNC has done to pull all party elements at all levels together with a focus on regaining the presidency in 1992. He cites the record $3 million the DNC put into coordinated campaigns in 31 states last year and regular meetings he has been holding with the Democratic congressional leadership, governors and mayors and with the party's stable of political consultants to discuss strategy for the next general election.
One idea that has been floating around the DNC is the possibility of having the party itself schedule and sponsor four to six "official" debates in key primary states in early 1992 to underscore the DNC's intent to take more of a hands-on role in the primary competition, as part of the effort to limit divisive fallout and keep the party focused on the November election.
Working up a strategy for the 1992 campaign when there is not even a single declared candidate seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Still, Brown's job is to have the party organization in place when one comes along. No presidential election has ever gone uncontested, at least since George Washington was the unanimous choice of the presidential electors in 1789. Some Democrat is going to run against George Bush in 1992, and Brown says the party machinery will be ready.