WASHINGTON. — WASHINGTON-- West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller has announced that he will not seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1992, provoking more gloomy talk about the abysmal decline of the Democratic Party.
Some people who thought the Rockefeller name, Jay's big money, his middle-of-the road respectability, would lift the Democrats out of doldrums in which party leaders seem to be conceding President Bush four more years in the White House.
But Mr. Rockefeller faced some stark realities. He has never been a leader, a great innovator in terms of legislation, in the Senate.
His one shining moment on the national scene was when the National Commission on Children, which he headed, recently issued a shocking and visionary report about families and
children in America. But no launch pad to the White House!
Senator Rockefeller soon saw that the political mileage out of that report wouldn't get him from Charleston to Morgantown, let alone to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
He realized, probably with some pain, that his name and money, both tainted in some circles, would not be enough for him to defeat George Bush.
That seems to deepen the malaise within the Democratic Party where House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri has said he will not run, leaving former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas as a sort of hapless bearer of the flag.
In truth, the whole Democratic leadership seems wimpy, in the House, Senate and Democratic National Committee.
It is as if it has been paralyzed by Mr. Bush's high poll ratings brought on by his landslide victory over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, but more so by his ''triumph'' in the Persian Gulf war.
Democratic leaders seem to think that it is hopeless to run against a man who will say:
''I brought the Communists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to their knees. I put leashes back on the Willie Hortons of America. I protected the jobs of white men by ending unfair racial and gender preferences.''
The thing Democratic leaders fail to comprehend is that while millions of Americans are patsies for the above arguments of fear, millions of others are angry about the woes that have beset this society over the last decade:
The deterioration of the economy; the high rate of joblessness; the mushrooming of scandals in banking, housing and the savings and loans; the lack of good, affordable health care; the fizzling war against drug abuse; the continuing decline of the quality of education; the erosion of America's ability to compete abroad; and on and on.
Are Americans destined to vote out of glandular fears, or will a majority ever vote for someone who preaches hope?
There is an opportunity for some gutsy Democrat to take on President Bush's politics of fear, in which he tells voters to worry first about potential black job-takers and black muggers and murderers.
This Democrat must believe that he can make voters believe in his ability to make them prosperous, well-educated, happy with both life and their neighbors of other races; that he can again inspire Americans to sing, ''Happy Days Are Here Again.''
Lurking in the Democratic shadows are Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, Sen. Al Gore Jr. of Tennessee and Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin.
The only one whose knees don't seem to shake when Bush's name is mentioned is Senator Harkin.
He not only is not intimidated by Mr. Bush, but he also believes that the Republican incumbent can be ousted with the traditional weapons used by former Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Laconic, irreverent, sarcastic Mr. Harkin has been stirring up people of both parties and independents around the country, by throwing his message of hope against the Bush litany of fear.
Still, it strains credulity to imagine that a little-known populist senator from the sticks of Iowa could oust one of the most popular presidents of our time.
But Harry Truman would tell us that horse races and presidential contests are predicated on the wisdom that nobody concedes a winner until some contestant crosses the finish line.
Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.