Leadership void


IT'S TIME a few good Democrats came to the aid of their party -- by running for president.

Usually the Iowa woods are full by now. At this stage last time, you could raise a Senate quorum in Des Moines any Friday. The contrasting silence so far this year has been a mercy -- as much to public as to political commuters. But now the country needs a lively debate on where and how JimFainwe want to go, especially in domestic matters. There's no way to have one when the opposition is without a voice.

Democratic leaders in Congress are first-rate but constricted in what they do and, to a lesser extent, what they say by the necessity of compromising with a Republican White House. House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate leader George Mitchell compound the problem by feeling responsible almost to the point of self-flagellation.

Congress is by nature reactive. It seldom initiates, and the Democratic Party is going to have to spawn ideas about what needs doing if it's to make a case in '92.

Political theorists say it doesn't matter, that all presidential elections are decided by the status of peace and prosperity, that incumbents have a huge edge and that both demographics and racial fears favor Republicans. Absent war or recession in fall of '92, President Bush is a shoo-in, they say. Candidates and issues don't count. Even sound bites and attack ads are irrelevant.

Give us a break. Someone with charisma and conviction who offered believable answers to our angst about economic future, schools, crime, drugs, environment and place in the post-Cold War world would leave old incoherent George sputtering 10 to 15 points behind.

Plenty of promising Dems lurk in the woodwork. Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York is on just about every list. He's tops in pizzazz but suffers the image of Eastern liberal and recently made some silly, off-the-cuff remarks about negotiating with Saddam. Senators Lloyd Bentsen, Sam Nunn and Albert Gore are safe Southern centrists, well-regarded and capable of putting campaigns on the road. None is a matinee idol, but even Nunn seems almost sexy when compared to Bush.

Sen. Bill Bradley's about on a par with Nunn when it comes to raising metabolisms but thinks about things and isn't afraid of new ideas. The notion that he and Cuomo were hurt by close races this year is ridiculous. Who remembers? Cuomo may get scarred by how he handles New York's money problems. Bradley has a free ride.

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas is able but little known. Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia is running hard -- probably for vice president. Both would make good Number Twos.

House whip Dick Gephardt is the dark horse. He's grown since 1988, when he proved he knew how to campaign.

All who go for it need to lay out their visions for getting the country in gear on matters that only government can cope with, like education, environment and energy policy. We're about to begin our 11th year of "getting government off our backs." If another four of Reagan-Bush decay is what voters want, no Democrat need apply. For that, the guy we've got will do just fine.

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