WASHINGTON. — Today's cliche is ''a year and a half is a long time in politics.'' True. But never in recent times has one party been in worse shape than the Democrats now. (Do not let tears fall on this
page; it makes newsprint hard to recycle.)
The latest chapters of Democratic self-destruction are so crazy they could not pass muster as political fiction submitted to a literary agent. (''Harry, see, there's this political party; everything's working against them; they pick the worst issues they can find, they brag about it; Harry! Harry, are you listening?'')
Consider how Democrats dealt with their plague issues, defense and race.
Democrats were ecstatic when the Cold War ended; soft-on-defense couldn't harm them again. When the Gulf War vote was taken, they could have nailed that home. But with polls showing Americans 2-to-1 in favor of a ''Yes'' vote, 60 percent of House Democrats and 80 percent of Senate Democrats voted ''No.''
Democrats had two rationales, which give a flavor of their make-believe thinking. They sanctimonized, ''it was a vote of conscience.'' True. Don't they get it? That's what American voters think: Liberal Democrats have a different kind of conscience.
Democrats said ''sanctions will work.'' That was mildly defensible -- then. But Democrats now say, ''We'll never know if sanctions would have worked.'' What? After a pulverizing war, with sanctions still on, with Saddam Hussein still in power -- Democrats still think sanctions could have worked?
And there is race. Incredibly, last year Democrats believed a civil-rights bill would help them. They said, ''Bush wants black votes, his veto will hurt him with blacks.''
Now Democrats say, endlessly, ''George Bush wants to replay Willie Horton!'' Don't they get it? Thanks to a Massachusetts law Michael Dukakis thought was keen, the imprisoned murderer Horton (life-sentence-no-chance-for-parole) was granted weekend furlough, and he committed rape and assault. The ''Willie Horton Issue'' may have been demagoguery and racist, but it's potency was as a symbol of decades of mindless liberalism.
Unbelievable. Democrats bring up Willie Horton! That's like having a geopolitical discussion with Richard Nixon and suddenly hearing him say, ''Have I told you about this sensational new tape recorder I just got?''
Democratic lefting has taken its toll. In 1980, voters were 53 percent to 34 percent pro-Democratic -- Democrats plus 19. By 1984 it was plus 8. In May 1991 the Republicans were plus 1. Among young people Republicans are now 18 percent ahead. (Looking forward: Old people die before young ones.)
Then there is George Bush. He is both moderate and conservative -- and 70 percent of Americans regard themselves as one or the other. His approval rating is now about 75 percent. Is he still high-flying from the Gulf? No matter. He was running at 65 percent before the war, and 50 percent is regarded as a winner for an incumbent.
Want more? Thanks to a 4 a.m. secret deal between Dukakisonians and Jesse-ites in 1988, there will be near-total proportional representation in the Democratic delegate-selection process in 1992. Proportionalism advances the interests of extreme-wingers. Just the ticket for a party that has lost five of the last six presidential elections.
Implausibly foolish? Democrats arranged for their 1992 convention to be held in, and televised from, New York -- America's model Democratic city.
What about Congress? Outside factors combined with Democratic wrong-headedness can change the terrain.
Census-driven redistricting gives additional congressional votes to conservative regions of the South and West. Term-limitation laws are hot, and likely to help Republicans. In 1992, there will be 21 contested Democratic Senate seats vs. only 15 Republican ** ones.
A big Bush win could yield a Republican Senate. The House could end up dominated by a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats.
And hardly anyone seems to care. Voters apparently have come to believe that there are times when blaming the victim is the right judgment.
Ben Wattenberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, i author of ''The First Universal Nation.''