WASHINGTON. — Washington.--Doug Wilder has the peculiar notion that a Democrat can be nominated to national office by running against the assumptions that have led the party to defeat in five of the last six presidential elections.
Last week, he appointed a group to study campus crime in Virginia, including the question of mandatory drug testing for state college students. Predictably, the American Civil Liberties Union screamed, and so did a lot of '60s-style Democrats who think the crime of drug use is a personal matter, none of the public's business.
Governor Wilder's task force was named after a dozen students at the University of Virginia were arrested for selling drugs and three fraternity houses were seized as sites of illegal drug use. He did not say he was for mandatory testing, but he left that impression.
"Virginia can provide a model for the nation," he said. The study "will send a clear and emphatic message, that Virginia is serious about insuring that its campuses are safe and conducive to learning."
In saying so, he sounded much more like the Ronald Reagan of the '60s, railing against free speech, free love and LSD at the University of California at Berkeley, than any national Democrat of the past generation. And for months before the matter of campus drugs arose, he had sounded much more like that Old Dominion skinflint, the late Harry Byrd Sr., than the free-spending Democrats who have run for president since 1932.
If he could be re-elected governor of Virginia, Mr. Wilder's conservative talk would seem politically sensible. Although he won in 1989 with strong backing from women who approved of his freedom of choice stand on abortion, he has not taken the liberal side of other hot issues since. But Virginia's constitution limits him to one term at a time.
He is not running for re-election; he is making noises about running for president. He has given his permission to an exploratory committee, in case he decides to go. If this seems presumptuous for an ex-state senator who has been governor only a year, it seems downright fantastic for one who happens to be black.
Shift the conversation to vice president, however, and possibilities take shape. Everyone in politics understands that you don't run for vice president, you run for the No. 1 job and then are tapped for No. 2. The only person in memory who actually ran for vice president was Chub Peabody. He didn't make it.
Doug Wilder would fit neatly on a ticket with any of the Democrats who are being mentioned -- neatly, but not necessarily comfortably. George McGovern, for example, the first Democratic volunteer for 1992, was accused by the opposition in 1972 of running on a platform of "acid, abortion and amnesty." His erstwhile fans might think it disloyal for him to pair with anyone openly opposed to drugs and overspending.
That is moot, however, because Mr. McGovern led the party off a cliff then and has no prospect of being picked to do it again. Three times since then, others have done it -- and chances are excellent that someone else will do it next year, and someone else four years later, until the Democrats face what has happened to them.
It is not necessary for them to embrace mandatory drug testing for college students or to approve deep cuts in social programs. Their historic strength was not on the political right, but in the broad middle annexed in the past generation by the Republicans. Despite opposing lunch-bucket programs, the GOP has succeeded in the middle by pounding social issues. On those issues, blue-collar Americans think they have been abandoned by the people who choose Democratic candidates.
The Democrats need somebody to speak up, to say hell no, that isn't so. They also need to hold black voters, who have been loyal to the party since Franklin Roosevelt. Doug Wilder, who did not become the first black elected governor in America by being shy, speaks up every time he opens his mouth.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.