DEFINITION OF A DEMOCRAT, circa. 1996: Disciplined, flexible, inclusive, confident, centrist and subservient to a president riding serenely and adroitly on a huge lead.
DEFINITION OF A REPUBLICAN, circa. 1996: Undisciplined, inflexible, exclusive, fearful, ideological and chafing under a presidential candidate who blunders daily as his election prospects sink.
In a week when egocentric Ross Perot's entry into the race threatened to split the anti-incumbent vote, one would think Bob Dole had enough to worry about without adding to his own troubles. One would be wrong. He managed to infuriate the NRA on the right by reversing himself and saying he would veto any attempt to repeal the ban on assault weapons. Then he turned around and insulted black Americans on the left by spurning an invitation to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In the latter goof, he accused NAACP chairman Kweisi Mfume of "trying to set me up." Well, we know a lot about Mr. Mfume. During his tenure as a Baltimore congressman and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, he built a reputation for courtesy, diplomacy and just plain smarts. He wouldn't be dumb enough to let the NAACP show disrespect to a Republican nominee with a respectable life-time record on civil rights.
These flubs were but the latest in a series that includes Mr. Dole's difficulties over the minimum wage, cigarettes and abortion.
As if to rub it in, Democratic platform writers met in Kansas City just before the weekend and shrewdly finessed the abortion issue that has Republicans tearing one another to pieces.
While the Democratic Party stuck with its pro-choice position, it added the kind of passage that was notably missing from its previous pronouncements: "The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level."
Compare this to the reception from the religious right that Mr. Dole gets when he tries to make his pro-life party "tolerant" of differing views on abortion. That super anti-abortionist, Pat Buchanan, who has threatened a walkout at the GOP convention, rebuffed a Dole invitation to a unity lunch in San Diego.
While the Republican Party encounters great difficulty in trying to move to the center where the votes are, the draft Democratic platform issued this past week reflects a party that has transformed its ideology by spurning the "big government solutions" that prevailed from the Roosevelt New Deal till the Dukakis defeat in 1988.
The party now commits itself to the centrist "New Democrat" line advocated by President Clinton in 1992, dropped during his first two years in office and then resurrected to great effect after Democrats took a drubbing in the 1994 congressional elections.
Thus, the proposed Democratic platform reiterates Mr. Clinton's State of the Union message that "the era of big government is over." It fudges on affirmative action, drops the demand for an Equal Rights Amendment and abandons its 1992 vow to end discrimination against gays in the military. Health care is no longer a "right," but an "access" problem to be faced through incremental reform.
Jubilant as Democratic partisans may be over the current political situation, it is not one that is likely to benefit the American people.
If Bill Clinton is to be the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win re-election, he needs to be challenged hard on his agenda for a second term.
Otherwise, instead of implementing the new party philosophy by really reforming welfare, entitlements, public schools, inner cities and other dysfunctional institutions, he might indulge his penchant for opting for what is slickly political and strictly expedient.
By the same token, a feeble, maladroit showing by the pragmatically conservative Mr. Dole could seal the takeover of the Republican Party by a hard-right coalition that has hardly distinguished itself since its capture of the House of Representatives two years ago. The result could be more politics, more gridlock, more polemics while the nation turns away from Washington in disgust.
Mr. Perot's Reform Party will have its uses if it forces Democrats and Republicans to clarify issues without skewing the election results in ways that do not reflect the real sentiment of the people. But at the end of the day, America is still best served when its two major parties have the strength, equilibrium, intellectual capacity and leadership to seek consensus under
constitutional checks and balances.