There's no guarantee that 'New Democrat' label will work for Gore

December 12, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In politics, winning is the ultimate credential. So it is no surprise that the New Democrats in the White House and elsewhere are claiming that they, rather than Dick Gephardt, have the proper prescription for the future of the Democratic Party.

Republican lite

President Clinton has won two elections as a ''different kind of Democrat.'' By contrast, the Democratic presidential candidates who practiced the kind of liberalism Mr. Gephardt seems to be recommending make up a roster of notorious losers: George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis.

It does not necessarily follow, however, that if Mr. Gephardt is mistaken, the new Democrats are on the right track in following an agenda critics see as Republican lite. Mr. Clinton has benefited from some extraordinary good luck since he came on the national political stage.

In 1992, all the heavyweight Democrats who might have competed for the presidential nomination -- people like Mr. Gephardt, Bill Bradley, Jay Rockefeller and Mario Cuomo, to cite the most obvious -- were spooked by the artificially high polling figures then-President George Bush enjoyed after the successful war in Iraq. After brief and largely ineffectual challenges from Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey, Mr. Clinton faced no competitor more imposing than Jerry Brown.

In the general election, his opponent proved not to be an unassailable incumbent but one who was viewed as bumbling and totally out of touch with the economic concerns abroad in the electorate that year. If that were not enough, Mr. Clinton also benefited from the option presented to voters by Ross Perot.

None of this suggests that Mr. Clinton did not gain from presenting himself as a New Democrat. The voters liked his talk about the ''responsibility'' of welfare recipients, and many liked his public display of independence from Jesse Jackson. But the single most important factor in that election was the weakness of the Republican incumbent.

Nor was Mr. Clinton's re-election last year a pure triumph of the centrism urged upon him by the New Democrats and media consultant Dick Morris. In fact, the key here was the remarkable weakness of Bob Dole as a Republican nominee incapable of making a connection with large blocs of the electorate. Even at that, Mr. Clinton won perfunctorily, with a margin of less than 10 percent of the vote.

Again, an argument could be made that the president made himself more acceptable for a second term by limiting himself to relatively modest and noncontroversial initiatives from the Oval Office. But the fact that the economy was booming obviously carried more weight with the few Americans who seemed interested in an election in which turnout was the lowest since 1924.

Economic factor

Indeed, the remarkable condition of the economy is a factor that cannot be ignored in the political debate within the Democratic Party today.

Mr. Gephardt is talking about the party's need to recognize that the gulf between rich and poor has continued to widen and that there are still huge holes in government programs designed to protect children and the disadvantaged. But the concerns of the House minority leader don't get much attention when everyone is oohing and aahing as the Dow skyrockets and unemployment reaches a 25-year low.

This debate over the direction of the Democratic Party is probably long overdue. But it is also being skewed somewhat because it is being seen largely in term of the rivalry for 2000 between Mr. Gephardt and the New Democrat vice president, Al Gore. The core of the case for Mr. Gore is that he would be the seamless successor to Mr. Clinton.

But the debate over the party's ideology won't be settled by the outcome of that competition in the caucuses and primaries in which rank and file Democrats are seeking a candidate and not just a set of ideas. Mr. Gore has yet to demonstrate that he is a sure-footed candidate who can enlist broad support on his own, whether for a New Democrat agenda or any other. Similarly, in his one brief campaign for the 1988 nomination, Mr. Gephardt did not prove he could attract zealous and widespread support.

Dark horse possible

The flaws in both are pronounced enough to mean there is also the very real possibility of some other Democrat defeating both Messrs. Gore and Gephardt in the primaries -- and thus earning the authority to define the party in terms that might not satisfy either side in the current debate.

At the moment, however, the issue is whether the Democratic Party can face up to its differences and debate them without tearing itself apart.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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