194. "A Lifelong Democrat Packs His Bags" New York Times, (October 8, 1989). Also published as "Decline of the Democrats" Baltimore Evening Sun, (October 16, 1989). Also published as "He's Packing His Bags" Philadelphia News, (October 24, 1989).


After a lifelong affiliation with the Democratic Party and its ideals, I am packing. And I am not alone.

The percentage of people identifying themselves as Republicans is rising steadily, from 25 percent in 1983, to 30 percent in 1987, and 34 percent in the most recent Gallup poll. The proportion who identify themselves as Democrats varies a great deal, but is declining on average, from a high of 44 percent in 1983, to 41 percent in 1987 to 38 percent most recently.

These defections are but a trickle - drops that threaten to grown into a raging torrent unless the Democratic Party is able to get its act together. To do that, Congressional Democrats will have to provide a coherent and systematic opposition.

George Bush, like Ronald Reagan, has deftly left the Democrats with few effective issues to call their own. The Administration has depicted itself as “for” jobs, education, the environment, child care, etc. Recently, however, Mr. Bush did the Democrats are rare favor. He suggested a reduction in the tax on capital gains.

This is an issue made in heaven for the Democrats, because it unites the poor, minorities and the white working and middle classes without alienating all but a tiny minority of the privileged. The Democrats, after years of being pre-empted, sandbagged and outmaneuvered, grabbed the capital gains issue and ran with it in several conflicting directions, leaving votes confused and, more likely, further disenchanted.

Some liberal Democrats oppose any cut in capital gains taxes; some conservatives openly and actively support the Bush plan; still others have concocted various schemes, such as fattening I.R.A.’s, that are cleverly distinguishable from the Bush plan in technical details but deny the Democrats the essential political opportunity: opposing “welfare” for the rich.

Democrats did as poorly or worse with Social Security, possibly the only major political G.O.P. blunder on the domestic front since 1980. By voicing hostility to the program and suggesting it be made voluntary, they deeply troubled major segments of the electorate. Indeed, they scared those most likely to vote and make campaign contributions: older Americans. Unpublished studies show that Social Security was the only Democratic issue about which voters cared strongly enough to cross party lines in large numbers and vote for Democrats - even conservative voters.

Bereft of true leaders or a strategic concept, many Congressional Democrats recently locked themselves into a posture that is triply defeating. The first step is to require President Bush to sign off on a tax hike, lest the Democrats be tarred with having introduced a new burden.

This may satisfy an unimaginative lawyer; the voters, however, will be quite clear who raised taxes, even if Mr. Bush is finally made to move his lips. And, voters will resent, to boot, the Democrats forcing their President to eat humble pie.

Once this is accomplished, Democrats would offer the following deal. If the President agreed to raise taxes they would agree to cut domestic programs (in addition to defense). But the public is opposed to higher taxes and to cuts in domestic programs.

Meanwhile, many of the same people who us the catastrophic Carter loss, the Mondale calamity and the Dukakis debacle are advising the Democrats on what major new “themes” to embrace. From the right, they recommend a balanced budget and a strong defense, to become essentially a second-hand G.O.P.

From the left, the recommend reemphasizing the traditional Democratic concern for the “rainbow” of minorities and other downtrodden; only this time, voter disaffection is to be overcome by new “packaging.” But voters won’t be fooled.

It is time to warn the Democrats’ warring factions and solo-flying personalities that they can draw only so long on loyalty to the “party of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.” Parties are modes of political representation. If a party cannot represent us effectively, we shall be reluctantly forced elsewhere. Most of us have not yet left, but we ought to serve notice: We cannot endure much longer such grossly ineffectual representation.

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