Havre de Grace -- The Democrats really are an entertaining group, especially when they smell blood. This past week, as the fatuities and the flatulence boiled up from New York and were instantly spread across the land by electronic winds, it was hard not to recall the two previous such conclaves in the Big Apple, and to wonder which this most recent adventure most resembled.
Most of the obvious parallels are with 1976. That year, as this, the party's party was firmly controlled by an attractive Southern governor of presumably moderate views. And that year, as this, the economy was in the septic tank and the White House was in the hands of a listless bunch of Republican hacks and a nice-enough but low-voltage president who hadn't a clue what to do about it.
Most of the Democrats in New York in 1976 hadn't thought much of Jimmy Carter to begin with, but by mid-July they had decided the election was in the bag and they could enjoy themselves. Peanuts were everywhere, as were T-shirts adorned with the candidate's Cheshire Cat smile. Restaurants were pushing grits for breakfast, which set the Village Voice to grumbling about "cracker chic."
The weather was cool and breezy. Some of those in attendance in 1976 sounded notes that would be echoed 16 years later. Barbara Jordan, one of America's great speakers, gave the convention's best speech. On the strength of it, Mr. Carter should probably have put her on his ticket. It wouldn't have hurt his career, and might well have helped it.
Unsuccessful candidate Jerry Brown, attended by Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden and Cesar Chavez, was at the 1976 convention to say goodbye. When he'd campaigned in Maryland that spring, he'd spoken of his "lightning theory" of politics: When the lightning strikes, a politician needs to move quickly and not waste the flash. He didn't suspect then, surely, that 16 years later he'd still be out in thunderstorms hopefully flying his kite.
The Democrats who remember '76, of course, shouldn't get too intoxicated by their optimistic sense of deja vu. There have been a lot of changes since those days, and even some of the insignificant ones are interesting. In 1991 dollars, we spent some $350 billion on health then, compared to more than $800 billion now. The deficit ('91 dollars) was $114 billion then, close to $400 billion now. Federal debt, as a percentage of the gross domestic product, was 36 percent then; it's just under 70 percent now.
There were more than 20 Communist nations then. Now there are five. Gasoline (in '91 dollars) averaged $1.40 a gallon then, as against $1.14 now. Proven world oil reserves were about 640 billion barrels then. They're 991 billion barrels now. Cars get more miles per gallon today, and measurably fewer metric tons of carbon monoxide and sulfur oxide pollutants are released into the air.
When Jimmy Carter became president, with the top income-tax bracket 70 percent, the richest 1 percent of Americans accounted for 13.6 percent of federal tax revenues, compared to 15.4 percent in 1989 with the top bracket 31 percent; the poorest 40 percent of the taxpayers accounted for 9.2 percent of revenues then, compared to 7.9 percent in 1989.
Then, more than 25 percent of the work force belonged to a union, and the biggest union was the Teamsters. Now, it's about 16 percent, and the biggest union is the National Education Association. There were almost 300 strikes a year then; in 1990 there were 44.
In 1991 dollars, the salary of a member of Congress was about $95,000 then; it's more than $125,000 now. The graduating classes of law and medical schools were, respectively, 13 and 19 percent female then; in 1991, those figures were 43 and 36 percent.
Since 1976, American life expectancy has increased from 73 to 75 years; infant mortality has dropped, from 14.1 to 8.9 per 1,000 live births; highway deaths per 100 million miles driven have dropped from 3.3 (1980) to 2.2 (1989); reported marijuana and cocaine use among people aged 18 to 25 has dropped; average teacher salaries have increased more than 10 percent in constant dollars; standard scholastic-aptitude test (SAT) scores have dropped slightly; the unemployment rate has risen from 6.9 to 7.5 percent, and 25 million more Americans hold civilian jobs.
In 1976, Congressman Paul Sarbanes, running for the Senate, declared that the Democratic Party was "the cutting edge of change." He may have been right. For the party won the White House that year, and when it came back to New York in 1980, there wasn't any doubt things had changed.
In 1980, the party knew its goose was cooked, and there was acrimony in the air. Peanuts and cracker chic were already out, as Jimmy Carter would be soon. Barbara Mikulski, who starred in New York this week talking unity, nominated Edward Kennedy for president. Representatives of splinter parties were everywhere. When Senator Kennedy dropped out, some of his support went to Barry Commoner and LaDonna Harris, the ticket of the Citizens Party. Some more went to the independent candidate John Anderson, a former Republican.
"If this party sees fit to nominate an ordained loser, then I'm walking out," declared Bill Winpisinger, a delegate from Maryland and the president of the International Association of Machinists, AFL-CIO. He walked to Dr. Commoner; a lot of his members walked to Ronald Reagan, and haven't come home yet.
Anyone who's been to both Republican and Democratic national conventions knows that Democrats not only have more fun and make better speeches, they tend to nominate more interesting candidates. The only trouble they seem to have is running the country, on the infrequent occasions that Republican ineptitude gives them the chance to do so.
That's why, if 1992 continues to turn out like 1976, it's a good bet 1996 will turn out like 1980.
Peter A. Jay's column appears here each Sunday.