SAN DIEGO — NO ONE is taking very seriously the threat of Democratic mayors to run one of their own -- Ray Flynn of Boston, the new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is the man most often mentioned -- for the party's presidential nomination next year.
Flynn is an ambitious and effective politician as well or better qualified than many who have been candidates for the presidency in the last few elections. But mayors also are, almost by definition, too closely identified with minorities and liberalism to be successful national candidates these days. (And Flynn has the special burden within the Democratic Party of being strongly opposed to abortion.)
The fact that there was talk about such a candidacy at the conference's 59th annual meeting here is, nonetheless, a reflection of a basic dilemma facing the Democratic Party -- how to reconcile efforts to help its have-not constituencies with the pervasive resistance in the electorate to liberalism and ambitious domestic programs.
Boston's Flynn believes in the most direct application of political muscle. He urged the mayors to put presidential candidates on the griddle by holding debates and forums at which they would be forced to specify where they stand on items on the mayors' urban agenda.
"As far as I am concerned," Flynn said, "we shouldn't support any candidate for president until we have been given concrete answers and clear, specific assurances that the needs of America's cities will be addressed and that the federal abandonment of our urban communities will be reversed. And if no one inside the Washington Beltway meets our expectations, it's up to us to find our own candidates."
But the problem doesn't lend itself to such a direct solution. Instead, it raises complex political questions for the Democrats. How do they make a case for helping the cities without alienating middle-class voters determinedly opposed to higher government spending? Given the concentration of minorities in major cities, how do they deal with the resurgence of racial resentment that has become so obvious among white working-class voters in both opinion polls and election returns?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how do they get the electorate to focus on the nitty-gritty specifics of an urban agenda against a candidate like President Bush, who unquestionably will be running for re-election on what he likes to call "values" but can be translated into simplistic slogans? In a campaign, it is much easier to understand a Willie Horton case than the need for urban development grants or revenue-sharing.
Some Democrats here argued that a better alternative would be to give the Democratic candidates a little breathing room on specifics so they could avoid making commitments the Republicans would throw back into their faces. The theory of these Democrats is that electing one of their own is the key -- any Democrat is preferable to a Republican -- and that the specifics can come later.
Flynn's argument is that the health of the cities should be a national concern, not just one of those who need government social programs. Until that goal is achieved, he argues, the goal of a strong national economy is illusory.
As an expression of both political and governmental philosophy, that case is a strong one. The figures make it clear that the gap between the haves and have-nots in our society has widened after a decade of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
But as an expression of political and governmental reality, the Flynn prescription falls short. Reagan and Bush have demonstrated they can succeed by essentially ignoring the concerns of the cities and minority constituencies. And many Democrats in Congress and some in governorships have been so intimidated by that example they are reluctant to make any waves. Politics is an imitative business at any level.
The nation's mayors are obliged every day to confront the problems of a growing underclass and the lack of either public or private resources to reverse these trends. They are the politicians for whom the problems of crime and drugs, homelessness and welfare dependency are realities rather than statistical abstractions.
But there is no reason to believe that voters who live outside the inner cities share the concerns of the mayors and are willing to make a commitment to them. To make any real progress, the mayors need a change in national priorities, not just a protest candidate for president.