Washington -- WHATEVER you think of the specifics, the proposal of the National Commission on Children for a $1,000-per-child tax credit is just the kind of thing the Democratic Party needs to wage an effective campaign against President Bush. The same can be said of the proposal by Senate Democrats for making health insurance universally available. And the same can be said of the plan advanced by Sen. Albert Gore Jr. for changes in the tax structure to put more of the burden on the wealthy.
All of these proposals have two things in common. They are directed at the economic interests of middle-class families. They have absolutely nothing to do with ideological arguments over social issues.
Indeed, on their face, those three proposals alone could make a strong platform for the Democrats in the 1992 presidential campaign. But before that happens, the Democrats have to find (1) the right messenger to make the case and (2) some way to avoid the usual arguments over litmus-test issues that often preoccupy Democrats but rarely interest the voters very much.
In a speech to southern Democrats the other day, Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia defined the Democratic problem in the South this way: "For too many presidential elections, we have had things backward. We have chosen to fight on social issues rather than to run on the economic issues that shape the daily lives of American families. When the average American family stays up late into the night, they are not worrying about whether school prayer should be voluntary or mandatory, they are worrying about how to balance the checkbook and where they will find the money for junior's college tuition. Our party grew up around the economic issues that concern working Americans most deeply, and this is the common bond that unites us. But instead of rallying around those basic, unifying economic issues, we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by social issues that not only divide us but defeat us."
Zell Miller has enough liberal credentials to make this case. He has a record on civil rights, for example, that earned him a significant minority share of the black vote in Georgia even in a primary against a black opponent last year, former Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta.
Thus, there is weight in Miller's argument against the conventional wisdom on why Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 campaign to George Bush. " 'Dukakis liberal" became a code word for social values outside the mainstream of the middle class," Miller said.
"Yet the basic error of the Dukakis campaign was not, as some suggest, its failure to answer the Bush assault on social issues (such as prison furloughs, the pledge of allegiance and the death penalty). . . Instead, the decisive, the devastating error of the Dukakis effort was its more profound failure to launch any assault of its own on economic issues. And because we failed to give people good reasons to vote for our nominee, the opposition was able to give them bad reasons to vote against him."
Miller's thesis may be valid up to a point, but it ignores one critical aspect of the 1988 campaign -- Dukakis's inability to display the personal force to control the campaign agenda. The truth is that the Massachusetts Democrat did have strong proposals on middle-class issues such as health insurance and education. His plan to make college educations universally available was a clear winner with those few voters who came to understand it. But Dukakis never could make himself heard.
So the basic question for the Democrats in 1992 has been answered: Yes, there are issues on which they can appeal to the concerns of middle-class families. But the more difficult question is who is capable of carrying the ball.
The case for Mario Cuomo is based almost entirely on the personal force he has shown and the vision of him as a candidate who can make himself heard. Right now some liberals are intrigued by the red-faced rhetoric of Sen. Tom Harkin. Others see the potential in Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who has been in the forefront on both the health care and children's issues. Still others are beguiled by both the ideas and rhetorical style of Gov. Bill Clinton.
The Democrats need to heed Zell Miller's advice and make the agenda for 1992 one of economic populism rather than a bootless debate over racial quotas. But whether they have the candidate to do it is still unclear.