If there is any real enthusiasm for the six announced Democratic candidates for president, I haven't found it among Democratic partisans. At a time when the economy seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, one would think that some Democrat would seize on the current malaise as an issue and offer a program keyed to restoring not only the nation's economic strength, but its leadership role in the world.
For make no mistake about it: By any objective standard, whether it be industrial competitiveness, productivity, economic growth, capital investment or the external debtor/creditor situation, America has been slipping -- especially when compared with its two World War II enemies, Japan and West Germany.
Last year, Scherle Schwenninger and Jerry W. Sanders of a little-known New York City think tank, the World Policy Institute, put forth that proposition forcefully in a paper suggesting that Japan's rise to the top shows that economic power, rather than military power, can determine a nation's destiny.
The point gains force if one assumes that what brings Mikhail Gorbachev to the bargaining table with President Reagan is not so much the Strategic Defense Initiative, but the humbling nature of a Soviet economy that betrays massive weakness.
In recent weeks, we have had a renewed demonstration of the impact of economic affairs in the collapse of global stock markets in response to huge imbalances of world trade. The United States cannot continue to accumulate huge trade deficits while Japan and West Germany rack up large surpluses and the rest of the world piles up debt. "Change your policies!" the financial markets say to the political leaders of all countries.
But so far, politicians -- in and out of office -- don't seem to be listening. And if a new poll commissioned by the World Policy Institute is right, the half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates are missing a golden opportunity.
The sample polled by WPI said that the most important quality they look for in a presidential candidate is the ability to revitalize the economy. By a 4 to 1 ratio, the respondents said that it is more important for Congress and the president to invest in the economy than in the military.
A smashing four out every five -- crossing party lines -- favor spending more on education and promoting economic growth, while only 28 percent want to spend more on defense.
They are not suggesting burying the Pentagon or in other ways leaving the nation defenseless. But they clearly reject the conventional wisdom, touted by Reagan and retiring Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, that national strength can be defined in terms of military power alone.
Yet if you have been able to force yourself to watch the TV debates among the six remaining Democratic candidates, they still seem to pay lip service to an old cliche: that military might, not economic stature, is what counts.
"While politicians continue to debate foreign policy issues as if the Soviet threat were the only reality and military-backed diplomacy the only option, we ignore the harsh facts of our declining economic position," said Archibald L. Gillies, WPI president.
The poll, taken just before the Black Monday crash and confirmed without significant statistical change after the market collapse, provides a first-ever reading on how the average American interprets national strength.
What emerges is a far different picture than the macho image that inspires Reagan administration hawks, who place all their bets on an overkill superiority in weapons, and who cite the massive attack on tiny Granada and the bombing of Libya as the high-water marks of the Reagan era.
Fewer than one in three said they feel more secure because of the Reagan military buildup in recent years. By 67 percent to 20 percent, those polled said that "economic power is more important than military power in determining a nation's influence."
The response cut across party lines -- 70 percent to 19 percent for Democrats, and 65 percent to 22 percent for Republicans. And there was little variation regionally; in the South, for example, the score was 66 percent to 21 percent.
When asked to rank the first and second qualities they, as voters, would look for in a 1988 presidential candidate, 58 percent said first, "Someone who can revitalize the economy," and second, "Someone who will try new approaches to our country's problems." Third (30 percent) was someone who would "stand up" to countries we trade with, and fourth, someone who will "stand up" to the Soviet Union.
What the WPI survey points to is the intuitive understanding among its citizens that America has a new role in the world that must recognize that interdependence and the need to cooperate are more important goals than a costly effort to contain Soviet expansionism. There is a willingness, in fact, to test Gorbachev and glasnost. (Gorbachev had a 47 percent favorable rating -- higher than that for Jesse Jackson or Pat Robertson.)
At the moment, it seems to me, the announced Democrats have no particular focus in their economic programs beyond a vague faith that a probable recession will help the Democratic Party next November. Most of the Democratic hopefuls are also protectionist, although only 29 percent of those polled cite unfair competition as the reason for our huge trade deficit, believing solutions are mainly at home.
The WPI poll sketches out an opportunity for some Democratic candidate who concludes that he or she need not be hostage to the cliches of the past. The real concerns of voters are rooted in declining American economic strength.