Failure of Harkin dramatizes changes in Democratic Party New Deal coalition continues to weaken

March 10, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Tom Harkin billed his presidential campaign as a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. But this year, Democrats are going with their head.

The Iowa senator called himself "the only real Democrat" in the race. He lost out to three new-style candidates who say the party has to change.

"Our campaign has been about keeping the progressive agenda alive in our party," Mr. Harkin said in his valedictory speech yesterday at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf. "We always knew it wouldn't be easy. The forces of reaction are dug in deeply, and that's why our candidacy has not been timid."

His poor showing -- he won no primaries and finished first in only two caucus states, including his own -- was being described yesterday as the death of New Deal liberalism. But that might be a premature conclusion, particularly since some believe New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, an archetypal New Dealer, could have been the Democratic nominee this year if he had been willing to run.

While Mr. Harkin's rivals spoke about change and seemed to offer new solutions, his prescription for the nation's economic ills was another heavy dose of government-sponsored jobs programs.

"Candidates who sound like they're offering the usual sort of thing aren't faring very well this year, whether it's Bush with his status quo message or Harkin, who, fairly or not, was seen as delivering the same liberal message we've been hearing for decades," said Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. "The candidates who are doing better are talking more about economic growth and about things that sound different and sound like departures from the past."

At the same time, the failure of the Harkin campaign dramatizes the forces that are reshaping the Democratic Party in the 1990s.

The New Deal coalition is continuing to weaken as the pool of voters who came of age during the Great Depression shrinks and the power of organized labor fades. Increasingly, political power is shifting to the suburbs, which this year, for the first time, are expected to cast a majority of the votes in the election.

Many of those suburban voters have become increasingly suspicious of government activism, in part because of a belief that their tax dollars are being wasted on programs that favor minorities and the poor.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is pitching his campaign to these voters, whom he calls the "forgotten middle class," and is offering a tax cut that Mr. Harkin mocked because it provides less than $1 a day to the average family.

Certainly, a number of factors unique to Mr. Harkin's candidacy contributed to his downfall. He started late, virtually unknown outside his home state and sporting a hell-fire speaking style that was too hot for most voters.

He hoped to capitalize on being the most outspoken liberal candidate in a party whose primary voters in the past have favored liberals. Mr. Harkin, who used sign language to give a portion of his withdrawal speech, also expected to gain from his sponsorship of the Americans with Disabilities Act, whose millions of beneficiaries include his brother, Frank, who is deaf.

But another expected source of support -- organized labor -- failed to come through to the degree that he might have hoped. Some labor leaders concluded that Mr. Harkin stood little chance of getting elected and withheld support.

He did receive backing from a few major unions, including some of the industrial unions whose power has eroded most in recent years. Others, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, supported Mr. Clinton, and the AFL-CIO declined to give any candidate an early endorsement.

Mr. Harkin's withdrawal, which might have become inevitable when his labor backers refused to provide additional funding for his debt-ridden candidacy, now opens the way for union leaders to play a potentially decisive role in the nomination race.

"We're moving into a six-week period in which organized labor can enter the fray if it chooses and play a very important role in bringing the contest to a close," said William Galston, a University of Maryland political scientist and an informal Clinton campaign adviser.

Some unions might get behind former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., who stands to inherit at least a portion of Mr. Harkin's liberal base. But labor's real choice might be between Mr. Clinton and remaining uncommitted, an option that could increase the odds of a deadlock and, possibly, the nomination of some other candidate more sympathetic to labor's interests. Mr. Harkin, who promised to work for the election of a Democratic president this year, endorsed no one yesterday.

Super Tuesday

Voters in 11 states cast ballots today that may alter radically the shape of the 1992 presidential campaign.

The most significant contest is the struggle for primacy in Florida between the two leading Democrats, Bill Clinton and Paul E. Tsongas. But the schedule includes primaries in both parties in eight states and Democratic caucuses in three others.

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