WASHINGTON — IF YOU want to understand the fundamental problem facing the Democratic Party today, you have only to consider two highly controversial issues now before Congress -- the free-trade agreement with Mexico and the 1991 version of the civil rights bill President Bush vetoed last year.
In each case, the Democrats are finding their freedom of movement limited by their traditional commitments to vital constituencies within their party -- organized labor and environmentalists in the case of the trade bill and black voters in the case of the civil rights bill. And in each case they are in danger of coming away with a political black eye because of the willingness of the voters to accept the Republicans' definition of these groups as "special interests."
No one would quarrel with the importance of these constituencies to the Democrats at several levels. Although union membership has declined markedly, Big Labor still provides important funding for Democrats and, often more important, skilled manpower in close elections in the big industrial states. Black voters regularly provide the margin of victory for Democrats both in the South and in those same industrial states.
Quite beyond these practical considerations, however, the Democratic Party cannot abandon the very constituencies that have made it a cloth of so many colors. This has been the party that has taken the lead in protecting the rights of minorities and improving the economic situation of working-class Americans. It is no exaggeration to say that the soul of the Democratic Party has been its commitment to social and economic equity.
This doesn't suggest that the Democrats have to play the sucker for every demand from a union or civil rights leader. But the problem for the party is that the Republicans have been so successful in fostering the perception that is just what has been happening.
There are, of course, circumstances in each of the current disputes that could lead to compromises that would change the political coloration of the debate.
The Bush administration's attitude that the free-trade agreement can only be viewed as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition is obvious nonsense. There are ways, perhaps through supplementary bilateral agreements, to meet many of the concerns of both the unions and the environmental groups that object to the "fast track" approval of the FTA.
On the civil rights bill, leading advocates of the measure already have been meeting with prominent business leaders in an attempt to find a compromise that each side can swallow. The White House insistence on its own version -- one that falls far short of the original -- doesn't have to be accepted.
But the point is that there is little or no political reason for President Bush or the Republicans to compromise in cases in which they are convinced they have the political iron side. So the operative question is whether they would rather have the bills or the issues to use in 1992.
The outcome of the FTA controversy is not likely to have important political effects next year. The agreement has the potential of making a significant difference to the economic life of both the United States and Mexico, as well as Canada, over the next generation or two. But it is not one whose effects will be felt immediately or clearly enough to echo in a presidential campaign.
By contrast, the civil rights bill could be an important issue if Bush vetoed another bill on the same argument that it called for "racial quotas" in employment. It is no stretch of the imagination to foresee the bill being the foundation of a campaign attack on affirmative action and minority set-aside programs that are already anathema to so many white workers.
The possibility of that rich political opportunity obviously lies behind the White House attempt to wet down negotiations on a compromise between the civil rights and business leaders. In this case, it is clearly to Bush's advantage to have the issue rather than the bill.
Given this political context, there is obviously a corresponding pressure on these Democratic constituencies to find a way to compromise both issues. They may have to settle for less than the purists would prefer, but the alternative is to give the Republicans even more ammunition for making the case in 1992, as they did so successfully in 1984 and 1988, that these days the "special interests" are the blacks and auto workers rather than the fat cats at the Union League club.