The Democratic Party is desperately in need of an economic policy that can stand as an alternative to Ronald Reagan's mixture of laissez-faire philosophy and bland refusal to deal with the problem of huge budget deficits.
But for the most part, Democrats perceive Reagan as successful on the economic issue, and have done more to ape him than oppose him.
"Raise taxes?" former Economic Council chairman Charles L. Schultze wrote in The Washington Post the other day. "Why, the Democratic leadership would rather be caught dead than espouse a tax increase, especially after what happened to poor Walter Mondale."
Many observers have concluded that Democratic economic policy consists mostly of a hope that the economy will turn sour under the weight of Reagan's budget deficit, sweeping the Democrats back into the White House in 1988.
"That's a bad and unattractive policy," Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), leader of the House Democratic caucus, acknowledged in an interview. "You can't wait around for failure. We've got to assume that the economy will continue strong or mixed."
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) fully agrees. In a long interview, he said "we won't beat something with nothing. And we will not win with the policies of redistribution. This party, in order to achieve social equity and social justice, must make the pie grow on a continuing long-term basis. We've got to stand for something."
But in truth, the Democrats, as an organized party, while recognizing the need for a credible alternative economic policy, are only beginning to come back to life from the shell shock of the November elections.
Such an alternative, or program, doesn't yet exist. Caucuses and councils in both houses of Congress, as well as presidential hopefuls, will be trying to evolve one over the next couple of years.
Hard at work are many of the younger breed of Democrats, whose ties to the New Deal or Great Society are remote. Among others, these include Gephardt, Hart, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware.
Hart said that the Democrats "created a vacuum in the Sixties and Seventies by not evolving a post-New-Deal economics to accommodate the changes that were occurring and, consequently, when things did stagnate, primarily because of oil prices and other factors, the Republicans filled that vacuum with supply-side economics."
All of the prominent younger Democrats reject Reagan's er to the Reagan-created $200 billion budget deficit is a tighter fiscal policy, so monetary policy can be loosened, bringing down interest rates. But they're not rushing forward with proposals for a cut in social entitlements or a big tax increase. Gephardt readily concedes that the Democrats are not anxious to espouse a tax increase "until we have the political ability to lead the country."
Hart even slipped into duplicating Reagan's "revenue enhancement" euphemism in describing the possible eventual need for a tax increase. "It's a good phrase," Gephardt agrees. "Look at the mileage Reagan got out of it."
Gephardt is confident that, when the time arrives, there will be a Democratic alternative that one can pick up and read. But as he admits in the case of a tax increase, it's hard to formulate a real policy until a party has the power to put it in place. In the end, a Democratic alternative to Reaganomics may depend on the emergence of a dynamic personality who can win not only the nomination of a coalition party such as the Democrats, but the election itself.