WASHINGTON. — Why is it that the Democratic Party has had such success winning both houses of Congress and most of the state houses and legislatures, but has trouble winning the White House?
The New Republic once suggested that Americans look upon Democrats as the mommy party which will nurture and protect them in Congress, but vote the daddy party for president on the daddy issues of national security, crime and the economy.
Barney Frank, the liberal Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, puts it another way. ''Democrats usually win when the voters are focusing on issues, and Republicans almost always win when voters are concerned with values.''
Hard times give the Democrats hope that they can change all that. In a book called ''Speaking Frankly,'' Mr. Frank tells them how to do it.
He says that on concrete issues such as ''health care, the environment, the needs of the elderly, housing, transportation, education, most Americans would probably agree with the Democrats.
But when the difference between the parties is defined in terms of patriotism, hard work, respect for the law and for the rights and property of others,'' the country elects a Republican.
The difference is that in presidential races Americans are likely to ''vote up,'' not so much as to represent their own interests ''as to embody their favored vision of the nation as a whole.''
Representative Frank says Democrats have come to be perceived as ''insufficiently pro-American, both internationally and at home; unenthusiastic about free enterprise, especially the principle that one should work for one's keep; unwilling and unprepared to move harshly against criminals; and disrespectful the way average Americans live their lives.''
The Democrats may be in the process of chipping away at that reputation, however. On crime, for example, who would have thought that three out of five Democratic candidates would have come out in favor of capital punishment?
One of the points Mr. Frank makes is that Democrats traditionally labor under the ''tyranny of the notsapostas.''
A ''notsaposta'' is a truth that members of a political party are told by ideologues but cannot acknowledge, lest they give aid and comfort to their enemy. For Democrats, Mr. Frank says, the most important notsaposta issues have been crime and foreign policy. It is notsaposta to denounce the viciousness of those who commit violent crimes lest it contribute, indirectly, to racial stereotyping or give comfort to the law-and-order right.
During the Cold War, Democrats were ''notsaposta to point out that the American government was morally superior to the Soviet government by every relevant criterion or that America's role in the world has been a positive one over the last 45 years.'' This was because the left wing of the party feared such sentiments would be used to justify more military spending and foreign interventions. But it is hard to stick up for international socialism, Mr. Frank says, when the nations that so recently practiced it have ''just pled guilty to the charges.''
Another ''notsaposta discourages liberals from noting that George Bush is morally superior to a variety of Third World dictators.'' Mr. Frank says that the biggest surprise he received following the Persian Gulf War was when leftists, who approved of his vote against the use of force, were furious that he would not denounce the Bush administration's position as being morally unjustified. He said there were violent outbursts among leftist supporters when he tried to suggest that President Bush was morally superior to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
''This debate becomes a microcosm of the problem Democrats have faced in presidential elections,'' Mr. Frank says, ''because it was exactly the most damaging political response that our left demanded of us.''
In short, by demanding and getting constant courtship, left-wing ''ideological militants'' have hurt the Democratic Party and helped lose elections.
Barney Frank is not the first liberal to scold the Democrats for ignoring the political center. But his advice is sound and applies equally to Republicans, who have their own destructive militants to deal with on the Pat Buchanan right.
H.D.S. Greenway is senior associate editor of The Boston Globe.