The Democrats' Dilemma

September 15, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN Jr.

For most of 1991, one prominent Democrat after another announced he would not run for president or refused to admit he would, leaving former Sen. Paul Tsongas as the only candidate. The tenor of the commentary was that the trouble with the Democratic Party was that it has no candidates of presidential stature.

Other Democrats are at last joining the race. Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder announced his candidacy Friday. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa is announcing his today. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. have indicated they will follow soon.

All of them to one degree or another embrace the basic tenets that their party has been identified with for the past 20 years and in some cases longer. So now that candidates are in place, the Democrats can confront the awful truth. The problem with their party isn't its candidates; the problem with its candidates is their party.

At the presidential, national leadership level of politics, the Democrats are bankrupt, perhaps moribund, perhaps worse. Former Vice President Walter Mondale said in an interview last week, "We've almost got a one-party system at the presidential level." Almost?

As he looks forward to the 1992 election -- as most people look forward to it -- it appears that a Republican landslide is certain. But this is no isolated thing, related to the lack of stature of men like Messrs. Tsongas, Harkin, Wilder, Clinton, Kerrey and Brown. Nor is it directly related to George Bush. The Democrats have suffered a cumulative landslide loss for more than a generation in presidential elections, through good candidates and bad.

In the last 10 elections, the Republican candidates have won seven (the last three straight by landslides), with a running total electoral college advantage of 3,671 to 1,669. In the last five elections, the Grand Old Party's popular vote margin was 49 million and its share of the two-party vote almost 56 percent.

To realize how total, how across-the-board the Democrats' collapse has been over that period, consider that in those 10 elections, they have carried the men's vote only three times, the women's vote only twice, the white vote only once. They have carried the Protestant vote only once. The only significant-sized blocs the Democrats have done well with are Catholics, whose votes have gone Democratic seven times, union households, which went Democratic nine times, and blacks, all 10 times.

As for regions, the Democrats have lost the West nine times, the Midwest nine times and the South six times (four of the last five). Only in the East (whose population and electoral votes are declining) have Democrats done well, breaking even by winning it five times.

All this is a judgment on the party, not its presidential candidates. This futility has in fact occurred despite some very good candidates. Mr. Mondale, for example, was a popular, respected senator before becoming in many non-partisan eyes the best vice president in modern times. He ran as the presidential nominee in 1984 and lost to Ronald Reagan by a margin of 59-41 percent. He carried just one state, his own Minnesota.

His colleague and mentor, Hubert Humphrey, was also a respected senator and, to a lesser degree, a respected vice president. He was one of the best campaigners of his day, certainly. But when he ran for president in 1968, he got only 43 percent of the popular vote and carried only 14 states. (Third party candidate George Wallace took 14 percent of the popular vote and five states out of Republican Richard Nixon's columns.)

Mr. Nixon almost -- may have, in fact -- out-polled the man many still consider the best Democratic presidential candidate of the post-World War II era. That was John F. Kennedy. The final official vote totals in 1960 showed Democrat Kennedy beating Republican Nixon by 114,273 votes, but the Kennedy total includes 318,303 Alabama votes cast for 11 Democratic electors of whom 6 were for a third party candidate. Take away 6/11ths of the Alabama Democratic votes and Nixon out-polled Kennedy. Either way you look at it, it was a dead heat nationally even with an outstanding Democratic candidate.

In 1952 and 1956, the Democrats nominated one of the real giants of the modern party, Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Even today, three decades after his last hurrah, he is remembered, respected, even revered by Democrats. He lost in two landslides, winning only nine and seven states respectively, and 44 and 42 percent of the popular vote.

So the Democratic malaise has not been caused by bad candidates, and it is not a recent development.

What is the problem? I can think of three. One is that Republicans have been more national-defense oriented. Poll after poll shows the American people trust Republicans and Republican philosophy when it comes to defense and foreign policy issues.

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