Since he burst onto the national political scene a year ago, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia has been doing the kinds of things that invite speculation that he intends to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.
He has been making speeches all over the country at the drop of an invitation. He has been outspoken in his contention that his party needs to change its ways to succeed nationally. He has been getting himself into brouhahas with prominent party leaders -- a contretemps with New York Gov. Mario M Cuomo one day, a dustup with Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb another. He has formed a political action committee and even developed a label -- the "New Mainstream" -- to describe the policies he advances.
But the speculation misses the mark. Mr. Wilder is indeed interested in becoming the vice presidential nominee. In the age of Dan Quayle, why not? But Mr. Wilder is far too realistic about his credentials to believe that he has any reasonable chance of being nominated for president. He does not hide the fact, for example, that he lacks any background or expertise on foreign policy questions, and he is not making the usual crash effort to fill that blank place in his resume.
Beyond that, Mr. Wilder recognizes that a couple of years as governor of a state with serious fiscal problems does not provide an ideal platform for leaping to the head of the list of Democratic candidates.
But to say that Mr. Wilder has no serious intention of running for president is not to say that he does not intend to become a force in determining the shape of his party. And that is a goal that is not beyond his reach.
In the first instance, Mr. Wilder is an intriguing figure because he is the first black ever elected to a state governorship -- and in a conservative Southern state. But what has made Mr. Wilder so different has been the aggressive way he has used his instant celebrity to try to influence the debate within a Democratic Party that is torn between its emotional commitment to liberalism and the recognition that it probably needs a ticket with a more moderate image to recapture the presidency the party has held only four of the last 22 years.
Mr. Wilder is attempting to define his "New Mainstream" in terms anyone can understand. He is adamantly opposed to tax increases, including those in the budget agreement approved this fall. He is equally committed to cutting the size of government to achieve the savings required to balance his own budget.
One result, unsurprisingly, is that Mr. Wilder is being depicted within his party as a closet conservative who happens to be black. Liberal critics point out, for example, that he supports the death penalty and opposes gun control. But that characterization is hard to sell when he is also a devout supporter of abortion rights, albeit on essentially libertarian grounds, and when he is so quick to take a combative stance against Republican attempts to convert the affirmative action issue into a no-lose debate over "racial quotas."
Since the moment he was elected a year ago, Democratic professionals saw Mr. Wilder as first and foremost a counterbalancing force to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. From now on, their reasoning went, Mr. Jackson would not be able to present himself as the unchallenged political leader of black Americans as he has done since 1984. And Doug Wilder, they believed, would be a far less frightening and alienating figure in the eyes of white voters. Moreover, they knew that Mr. Wilder had always kept himself aloof from Mr. Jackson -- making it plain that he considered working his way up through traditional politics preferable to trying to use the civil rights movement as a political credential.
But Mr. Wilder is not thinking in terms of himself as a countervailing force to Mr. Jackson. On the contrary, he suspects that Mr. Jackson may not even run for the nomination again in 1992 because he fears the risk of being seen as a "black Harold Stassen" perennially running for something he cannot achieve.
Instead, Mr. Wilder sees himself as a prominent player in the embryonic but clearly developing contest between Democrats who believe the personally electric Mr. Cuomo should be the candidate and those who insist it must be someone -- Sam Nunn or Richard A. Gephardt, for example -- who breaks the pattern of the party nominating liberals who make them feel good in July but lose in November. Mr. Wilder has no illusions that he is that Democrat, but he intends to have a voice in deciding who it should be.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column appears there Monday through Thursday.