Party of the Insecure

March 26, 1991

So the Democratic Party has come to this: "All we're interested in [in a presidential nominee] is someone who won't hurt us," said Alabama Democratic Chairman William Blount at the Democratic National Committee's annual spring meeting. This is a showplace for potential presidential candidates. Or should be. Four party leaders mentioned as presidential prospects -- Sens. Lloyd Bentsen, Albert Gore, Bob Kerrey and George Mitchell -- turned down the chance to speak at the meeting.

Mr. Blount's concern is that President Bush might defeat a weak candidate so badly as to hurt the ticket all the way down the line. The prospect of wholesale Democratic losses in congressional elections is being talked up by some political analysts. For one thing, there may be as many as 100 open seats next year in the House, due to redistricting and retirements. The Democratic Senate class of 1986 comes up for its first test.

And the people are telling pollsters they like Republicans. This is new. According to the Times-Mirror Poll, as of this month, Americans identify themselves as Republicans/Democrats/Independents this way: 36 percent/29 percent/31 percent. Last fall, the Times-Mirror Poll had it 29/33/32.

Democrats say the new numbers are due to euphoria about the war and will not last. That depends on how seriously voters take Democratic senators' and representatives' opposition to the use-of-force resolution. Even if voters don't decide to penalize them for that, even if the 1992 election is, as DNC Chairman Ron Brown put it, decided on "bread and butter domestic issues," that is not necessarily good news for the Democrats. When times are good, voters prefer Republican presidential candidates on bread and butter issues, as we have seen in 1988 and 1984.

What about when times are bad? Mr. Brown says, "When the American people feel economically insecure, they turn to the Democratic Party." Yes, but at the end of last year, with a recession (and without a victory in war), the Gallup Poll found Americans identified themselves as Democrats by only 38-32 percent, less of an edge than Gallup found in 1988, when George Bush, with independents' help, was elected in a landslide.

What does it tell you about this party, that Democrats need hard economic times to win elections? That is the trouble with the party as a vehicle for electing a president. It has become too concerned with the minority of people who look to government for security and too unconcerned with the majority who do not. That may earn Democrats points in heaven, but not in the Electoral College.

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