Democrats searching for the Big New Idea that can rescue them from presidential oblivion in 1992 need not look far. Though they like to interpret recent male-female voting patterns as the inability of Republicans to win female votes, it would behoove them to observe and rectify their own failure to gain votes from men.
The traditional base of the Democrats was -- but no longer is -- ''the working man.'' There is little political kinship between this fellow and the man who occupies high office in business or industry, but certain special interests since the early '60s have persuaded the Democrats to ignore that fact and build policy around the over-generalized notion that ''men have all the power.''
The most that can accurately be said, of course, is only that some men have much power. By embracing a philosophy that labels all men as members of a privileged, powerful class, the Democrats have virtually invited their male constituents to identify -- and vote -- with the Republicans, the party of the privileged and powerful.
The Democrats can correct their blunder and reach out for the male vote in 1992 with a statement that men will welcome, a message that is straightforward, long overdue, easy to communicate and, most important, vital to America's future. The idea is simply this: ''Fathers Are Important.''
tTC Just as career issues were central to the self-respect and dignity of all women, even women who chose not to seek careers, fatherhood is central to men's, even to those men who have no children. To say that Fathers Are Important is to acknowledge all that is good about men and masculinity. After 30 years of ubiquitous negativity about maleness, the politician who dares to say good things about fathers will make a favorable impression not only on men, but also on those millions of women who know that men are better than their recent press would indicate.
Beside being popular, the fatherhood message would be socially beneficial. Both major parties have paid lip service to ''family values,'' yet neither has recognized that the weakest link in the American family today is fatherhood. Social policies merely attempt to legitimize the dismal condition of the family by redefining it as a woman-with-children. Policy makers see fathers as only non-essential financial implements whose contributions to their children can be replaced neatly by cash transfers from the government or by child-support payments, coercively extracted if necessary.
But Fathers Are Important. They provide children with invaluable benefits that have nothing to do with finance. Even after controlling for the additional income a father typically provides, research consistently reveals that children with fathers generally show more respect for authority, are more altruistic, perform better in school, feel less need to participate in gang activity, and are less likely to use drugs, deal drugs, be violent or become teen-age parents. Yet 15 million children today are growing up without fathers. In the midst of our current domestic chaos, fatherhood is an effective, no-cost law-enforcement and social-work program.
Democrats must ask themselves: ''Can we bolster fatherhood without losing feminists?'' The fact that the question arises is a symptom of the problem. To be sure, some women's activists wish to treat fatherhood as nothing more than an intrusion on motherhood, but many more understand that respect for fathers is essential to feminist goals. A former president of the National Organization for Women, Karen DeCrow, has said that until men are valued as parents, the burden of child rearing will fall 'N primarily to women and frustrate their efforts to gain equity in the workplace.
And that is the reason the fatherhood message is ideally suited to Democrats and will be distasteful to Republicans. Like most conservatives, Republicans think of fathers as providers and mothers as nurturers. The GOP's longing for ''traditional family values'' would put the women's-movement genie back in the bottle, send women back to the kitchen and keep men ''out there working where they belong.'' Democrats, on the other hand, could speak sincerely of the value of involved, active fatherhood and simultaneously highlight the Republicans' lack of creativity and progress on domestic issues.
Solving America's most difficult social problems depends largely strengthening the American family. Strengthening the American family depends on rehabilitating American fatherhood. Along with opening the door for family-policy changes that will boost fatherhood, the message that Fathers Are Important will make man feel something the Democrats have not made them feel for many years: welcome and appreciated. And more willing to vote Democratic.
Jack Kammer is a former executive director of the National Congress for Men.