The Democrats are up for grabs

Thomas F. Eagleton

May 31, 1991|By Thomas F. Eagleton

IN modern times, there have been two Democratic parties marching to different drummers. The activist liberal wing was created by Franklin Roosevelt. The glue of the Great Depression and World War II held that wing and the conservative South together in a marriage of convenience and necessity.

After the war, the split between the two factions began to surface almost immediately. Harry Truman miraculously managed to drive down center street with Henry Wallace on his left, Strom Thurmond on his right and Tom Dewey in dismay. John Kennedy moved to a hawkish center (Ike had created a dangerous "missile gap") and, with the help of Lyndon Johnson in Texas, squeaked out a victory.

Johnson won a landslide when the Republicans abandoned the middle and veered heavily to the right with Barry Goldwater. Jimmy Carter was an aberration in the aftershock of Watergate, and by 1980 was a wounded aberration. He not only had the double albatross of inflation and hostages, but he had the liberal wing of the party delighting in his downfall. Ted Kennedy's quixotic challenge presaged the Carter fall.

The demise of Jimmy Carter was the end of the Democratic Party as a presidential contender. Moderates were no longer comfortable with the old liberal wing. "Happy Days Are Here Again" could no longer bridge the gap between a Jimmy Carter and a Ted Kennedy. In presidential elections, the Republicans now have the right and most of the middle. The Democrats are hanging on the left limb and don't know how to swing over to the trunk of the tree.

For the Democrats, it's a fatal disease of both philosophy and personality. The federal government is broke. It's hard to spend a lot more on education, health care, housing and other domestic disasters when the cash register is empty. So both parties resort to slogans and argue whether we should spend a drib more here or a drab more there. It's dribs and drabs while the cities -- like the nation's capital -- might be on the brink of burning.

The American people want instant solutions on the cheap. We are convinced that panaceas like term limitations will cure everything and not cost a dime. We want magic cures for deep-rooted diseases, which is like sending a box of Band-Aids and a mop to Bangladesh along with a get-well card. As long a the people are hooked on magic shows, the Republicans will occupy the White House.

Then there are the personalities. Mondale couldn't beat the champ. Michael Dukakis was 17 points ahead in July but ran a notoriously incompetent campaign on the theme of "competence." It was a political catastrophe from which the party has not yet recovered.

The Democrats head toward 1992 with no viable candidate in sight. They look forward despondently to their convention in New York. The most spirited philosophical issue may be a divisive floor debate on the question of racial quotas in hiring. Blood may spill. The intra-party split with be accentuated and some hapless soul will be nominated to face the George Bush meat-grinder.

One observer puts it this way: The Democratic Party is now up for grabs. Anyone who wants it can have it.

Thomas F. Eagleton served as U.S. Senator from Missouri from 1968-1987. He is a professor of public affairs at Washington University in St. Louis.

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