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What Ever Happened to the Democrats?


Boston. -- Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic Party on May 23, 1792, according to party lore, but you didn't see much celebration of the bicentennial Saturday, for two reasons.

One is that the date is a bit arbitrary. Jefferson wrote President George Washington a long letter on that date attacking the "Monarchical Federalist" faction, Alexander Hamilton apparently among them, and describing opposition groups already in Congress, though none called themselves "Democrats" for some years. Indeed, Jefferson's letter beseeches Washington, himself a Federalist, to seek a second term. Still, the letter offers as good a birth date as any.

The second problem is that, after 200 years, the Democratic Party has little idea of what or how to celebrate. Once the hope and protector of America's masses, the party has lost its message -- and its membership. It is a potential albatross for national candidates, as the early popularity of Ross Perot testifies. True, the Republicans are little or no better, but that's no consolation.

Many months ago, some staffers at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington suggested that a huge celebration be organized for the party's bicentennial. But a problem quickly developed. Lists of top elected officials and contributors were available, but then, as William Greider reports in his new book, "Who Will Tell the People," someone suggested that they "invite the many thousands of people who are active in party affairs -- the 'regulars' who serve on county committees or tend to the mechanics of election precincts or campaign operations, the legions of people who faithfully rally around the ticket. . . . The DNC staffers searched the party's files and discovered that such lists no longer exist. The Democratic Party headquarters did not know the identity of its own cadres."

The party, Mr. Greider concludes, is "a historical artifact" that "functions mainly as a mail drop for political money."

The national committee chairman, Ron Brown, says that he hadn't seen Mr. Greider's account, though the book has been on the New York Times' best-seller list. He says the DNC does have some lists of workers, but "I can imagine the donor list is better."

The donor list has 400,000 names on it (about one-third the size of the Republican list). The average age of these people is 70.

Various states are trying to do more. North Carolina had a bicentennial celebration. In Massachusetts, chairman Steve Grossman inserted an anniversary note in his newsletter, but says he is putting more effort into organizing citizen participation, especially of young people, rather than throwing a birthday party.

Organization is clearly one problem. But even more paralyzing for the Democrats seems to be the question: If they could get everyone together, what would they say?

The problem has been illustrated from the first day of the presidential campaign, with Tom Harkin claiming to be the only "real Democrat" and Paul Tsongas basically saying Mr. Harkin's idea of the party is ancient history.

Many Democrats, meanwhile, objected to Bill Clinton's chairmanship of the Democratic Leadership Council, a splinter group that was in some ways more conservative than they, and to his emphasis on the middle class while, some felt, shortchanging the poor and disadvantaged -- a traditional constituency.

There has been a debate recently at high levels of the Clinton campaign about whether he should run in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy, or whether he should present himself as an outsider -- the candidate of change.

But where is the conflict? Mr. Clinton in fact is well positioned by his youth and his non-Washington political experience to capture the traditional Democratic values and translate them into a message for the future -- for himself and the party.

There is never growth without change. One great American said he would decline a trip to heaven if he could get there only via a political party. The year was 1789. The man was Thomas Jefferson.

Robert L. Turner is a Boston Globe columnist.

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