Washington -- THE CLARENCE Thomas episode has opened a gaping wound in the Democratic Party. The failure of Senate Democrats to defend Anita Hill adequately and the defection of 11 Democrats to support the confirmation of Thomas has caused a rupture that will not be easily mended.
The picketing of Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, who voted for Thomas,and the fundraising dinner of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was only the tip of the iceberg. The anger among women Democrats is so pervasive that it is likely that a new litmus test has been created for the party's national ticket -- that is, only those who opposed Clarence Thomas need apply.
The stakes for the Democratic Party are high. In most recent elections the Democrats have enjoyed the benefit of the so-called gender gap. That means that, other things being equal, women have tended to vote for Democrats more often than men. Although Michael S. Dukakis frittered away that advantage in 1988, many senators and governors won closely-contested races the last few years on the basis of that additional backing from women.
But now the party has failed to block confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee who almost certainly will join the existing majority to repeal the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion 18 years ago. At the same time the Democrats have failed to show themselves sensitive to the seriousness of the charges of sexual harassment brought against Thomas by Anita Hill.
The problems confronting the 11 Democrats who defected are obvious. If any of them has been nourishing ambitions for a presidential or vice presidential nomination, as some of them clearly have been doing, they can expect implacable opposition from women activists within the party. In Robb's case, this is probably academic because his own personal problems have been bizarre enough to effectively eliminate him as a national player. But the list of defectors included several southern Democrats who might have been short-list candidates for the Democrats in 1992 or thereafter: Sam Nunn and Wyche Fowler of Georgia, David L. Boren of Oklahoma and John Breaux of Louisiana.
Defenders of Fowler and Nunn, in particular, will argue that Thomas was a nominee from their home state and will point out that all across the South there were majorities of black voters who favored the confirmation -- the same voters Fowler and Breaux will need to win re-election next year. But it is rea
sonable to wonder if blacks felt the kind of personal stake in Thomas that women felt in the sexual harassment issue. The support of Democrats by women activists has been a mixed blessing in recent years. The party's candidates may welcome the endorsement of the National Abortion Rights Action League or leaders of Planned Parenthood, but the National Organization for Women has earned a reputation as extremist and is perceived, fairly or not, as political poison.
It would be a mistake, however, to measure the response of Democratic women to the Thomas case solely or even largely in terms of these highly visible and vocal organizations. Activist women far less militant than NOW have become an increasingly important element of the Democratic coalition, in some measure because of the Democrats' reliability on the abortion rights question. And these are the women whose dismay now is something party leaders have reason to fear.
Senate Democrats dealt with the sexual harassment accusation by Hill only when forced to do so by the anger that built up , principally although not exclusively among women, outside the Senate. Then when they confronted the issue, they handled it so ineffectually that Republicans were allowed to lynch Hill.
And when the time came for the vote, 11 Democrats were allowed to slip away while such purported leaders as George Mitchell were wringing their hands over the process and the bad name the institution was being given. It is hard to imagine that a majority leader of another time, Lyndon B. Johnson, would not have produced three of those 11 votes on an issue of such overriding importance to such a critical Democratic constituency.
Mitchell was quoted by the New York Times as ruing the fact that the confirmation process "has taken on the trappings of a political campaign." That's true. But what the women are asking is: If it has become a campaign, why not win it?