Democrats Finally Get It

JOE STROUD

July 17, 1992|By JOE STROUD

NEW YORK. — New York--When Will Rogers Jr. trotted out his dad's old line, ''I be-long to no organized party -- I'm a Dimmycrat,'' the people of this convention laughed and cheered.

It seemed a perfect description of the bruising struggle within the Democratic Party -- since 1972, really -- between the centrists and the liberals. A lot of passion has been poured into the debate between those who emphasize growth and those who emphasize justice; between those who talk about the forgotten middle class and those who talk merely about the forgotten.

Yet as I have watched this week unfold, this has seemed to me to be finally a party that is more united than divided, more focused on the enemy outside than on the enemy within. We'll see. This strange election year will tell us whether the Democrats have gotten back to caring more about the big war in the fall than about the civil wars all spring.

When Bill Clinton stepped into the limelight Thursday night, it was, as the Bush people love to say, his defining moment -- or, perhaps more accurately, his redefining moment. He had to try to give intellectual substance to the slogan of the week, ''putting people first.'' It will be important to watch whether Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown and Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas really do become willing foot soldiers in the new Clinton army.

But as I've listened to ''the Dimmycrats'' this week, it seems to me they already have coalesced around a unifying principle: that four years of George Bush (and 12 years of Reagan-Bush) have made the country less nearly just, less hopeful, less fluid, less youthful, less free; and that government can still do something about it without itself becoming a part of the problem.

They do divide over how much of a threat government itself remains, but on the larger point they are pretty much together. They seem finally to have understood that the struggle within the soul of America is not so much about programs as about values.

And they seem to sense that they do indeed still have something worth saying about values: about human rights and civil rights, about justice and freedom, about maintaining a sense of community and protecting the individual.

I think they've learned something in their long years in the wilderness. You need to listen to those who cry out for fairness, but not try to respond simply by endowing them in their disability. You need to hear what Jesse Jackson says about opportunity, but remember that he sometimes muddles the message about where opportunity lies. You need to be compassionate and committed to including in all those who have been written off, but remember the difference between being compassionate and being controlled.

The Reagan-Bush crowd did appeal for a long time to a feeling that it was the Democrats who had made everything in America stop working. Their arguments about smaller government and privatization and choice and the power of the marketplace did say something important. Some good things have happened as a result.

I visited Central Park Zoo this week and heard and saw what a wonderful transformation had been wrought since it had been privatized, when the New York Zoological Society had taken it over from the city. There are such examples of constructive change in various places across the country. The Democrats need to acknowledge the validity of some of those changes.

But what has pulled the Democrats back together now is the conviction that George Bush at least -- and perhaps Ronald Reagan as well -- meant not growth or fairness, not the protection of the individual or a strengthening of the sense of community.

Against that backdrop, the gap between Zell Miller, the governor of Georgia, and Jesse Jackson seems less important than it used to. And Bill Clinton and Al Gore don't seem as far from Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy as some of their Democratic doubters have thought.

We'll see. It will be a tough, long fall. Maybe the democratization within the Democratic Party that began in 1972 has matured. Maybe the Democrats are ready at long last to resume leading America's quest to be the most nearly free, most nearly just society it can be.

Joe Stroud is editor of the Detroit Free Press.

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