Washington -- ONCE AGAIN, the old argument heard in a Democratic Party fallen on lean times is surfacing: Can the voters be trusted to select a presidential nominee capable of winning and governing, or must the party's experienced officeholders save it from another folly
Democratic officeholders have been complaining ever since the party's 1972 reforms opened its presidential nomination proccess to more voters that the old pros, the reservoir of political wisdom and judgment, have been brushed aside, resulting in a string of losers from George McGovern to Michael Dukakis.
Now one of them, Sen. Terry Sanford of North Carolina, is pressing his colleagues in Congress to seek an early, louder say in the process so that the first 1992 voter tests in Iowa and New Hampshire don't produce a candidate who can't rally the party behind him and hence can't win.
"Dukakis ran without understanding that there was a Democratic Party out in the land, and he never did call on it," Sanford says, by way of arguing for a greater voice by party leaders who then might rally to the eventual choice.
Sanford's argument is an old one -- that the Democratic nominating process unduly rewards strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, where relatively few voters render a judgment that may be more the product of campaign hype than of substance. What is needed, he says, is some "professional judgment" by politicians who have been through the mill on which candidates offer the best hope of winning and then governing well.
The former North Carolina governor insists that he is not out to replace primary voting with the evaluation of candidates by a small group of office-holding wise men. Rather, he says, he wants to see some counterforce created to the early voting tests so that good candidates with good ideas are not knocked out of the nomination race early.
Accordingly, Sanford is lobbying his colleagues for establishment of a series of candidate auditions next December or January at which presidential hopefuls one at a time would come before a large gathering of officeholders in Washington and subject themselves to a thorough exchange of views.
Invited would be office-holding Democrats selected as "super-delegates" to the Democratic National Convention by virtue of their positions and unpledged to any candidate. After hearing all the White House aspirants, Sanford says, they would cast straw votes intended merely to provide an unofficial credential for their favorites. The candidates would come out of the sessions with a rating that, Sanford says, would provide voters in remaining caucuses and primaries with a guide on which of them was regarded highly by the pros.
It is a notion, however, that assumes voters will pay attention to what the officeholders say. In this era of voter disillusionment toward elected officials, a high rating might not carry much weight at all.
Whether candidates would be willing to submit to such judgment is another matter. A non-officeholder and particularly a non-member of Congress might feel the process was stacked against him. Officeholders, too, might be reluctant to identify too closely with one candidate, fearing they might wind up with a loser. They will remember 1972, when many officeholders endorsed Sen. Edmund Muskie and wound up not even getting to the convention as delegates when Muskie slates on which they ran lost.
Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee, says he favors anything that encourages candidates raise issues against President Bush and can lead to an early decision on the party's nominee, with the party leadership behind that decision.
At the same time, any exercise that would encourage candidates to maintain their candidacies after poor showings in the early caucuses and primaries would run counter to the prime objective of Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown. He wants to get the intraparty competition over quickly and with minimal internal bleeding, so that nominee and party can focus early on the campaign against Bush.
Right now, although Sanford denies any such intent, his proposed exercise is likely to sound like a throwback to the old decision-making in smoke-filled rooms. This doesn't seem to be the most propitious time to ask cynical voters to pay particular attention to the rascals they've thrown in.