158. "The Democrats Need a Unifying Theme" The New York Times, (October 5, 1984).


The Democratic Party desperately needs a unifying and mobilizing theme – something that has eluded it ever since the Great Society ran out of public support. We will not find such a theme until we learn the difference between style and substance – and start to think more clearly about what really concerns the American people.

According to many Democratic campaign advisers, the Republicans’ advantage today is largely a matter of leadership style – “mediability” and personality. To refute this notion, one need simply imagine that instead of talking about God, family and country, the President was extolling Zen Buddhism, unilateral disarmament and sexual license. His rating would of course crash within a week. Now matter how great an actor he is, the script is still what matters most to most Americans.

Indeed, when Mr. Reagan promotes notions that the American public finds unacceptable– cutting Social Security, for example, or mixing religion and politics– his effective delivery only works against him. People hear him loud and clear, and far from being swayed they sent him into a quick retreat. Among the Vice Presidential candidates, the relatively liberal Geraldine A. Ferraro certainly has more personality and style, but at least one poll shows that the public prefers dull and relatively conservative George Bush by 59 percent to 32 percent.

There is also a world of difference between issues and themes. Issues concern specific policy differences, from ways to get arms control to what not to do about Nicaragua and El Salvador. Themes are embracing perspectives: they help people articulate their feelings and think about such matters as the future of the nation, peace with honor and a growing economy. Issues interest mainly that segment of the public that follows public affairs closely. Just about everybody responds to themes. Issues allow a candidate to make debating points and build up scores in some voters’ minds. The right themes allow him to mobilize masses of people and bring volunteers rushing to his campaign.

Fairness is a theme, but it will not give the Democrats the edge they need. Such a theme must appeal to two very different constituencies. It must unify and mobilize the traditional Democratic bases in the North and South, even while it draws new groups of young, college-educated suburbanites into the folds of the Democratic Party. (Democrats must appeal to both because their old bases are declining in size and increasingly disloyal, while the yuppie bloc is insufficient by itself and quite vulnerable to the G.O.P)

Fairness appeals to many traditional Democrats but does little for others– southern whites, many blue-collar workers and white ethnic voters– and draws largely lip service from most yuppies. True, polls show that Americans of all ranks respond sympathetically to the idea of fairness, but only as long as they are not asked to chose between fairness or some other value such as economic growth or public services for the middle class. Offered such a trade-off– and in an election they inevitably are– few Americans base their votes these days on commitment to fairness above all other concerns.

The future is the theme that brings the yuppies out, as Gary Hart showed clearly enough. The question is, Can it be developed to appeal to other groups? To the extent that it sounded like a high-tech jingle or a narrow appeal to ambitious young people, it did little to warm the hearts of older and traditionally Democratic voters.

Populism is another possible theme. Polls suggest that some two-thirds of the American people feel powerless and ignored, pushed around by special interests, big Government, corporations and labor unions. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan built on these feelings in their anti-Washington campaigns, and the Democratic Party could possible make a theme out of attacking special interests – the super-rich, the banks, agribusiness conglomerates and labor union bureaucrats.

It may well take a few years for the party to develop and solidify a new winning theme. The Democrats squandered the last few years on internal squabbling and preoccupation with issues, neglecting themes. If the party does not take heed soon, it will risk losing more than the 1984 election.

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