THE LIFE OF THE PARTY

Democratic Prospects

In 1988 and Beyond

By Robert Kuttner

Viking. 265 pp. $18.95

ROBERT KUTTNER in his provocative book, The Life of the Party, says he knows why legions of working-class voters followed the example of the country-club set and voted for Ronald Reagan. It is because the Democratic Party, in its desire to be near the center of the political spectrum, has forgotten its heritage. "In a political democracy which is also a market economy, it remains the case that the left-of-center party must rally ordinary voters to offset the disproportionate residual influence of the well-off. To mobilize voters, that party must deliver things that voters need, using the common instrument of political democracy -- the state. In a modern industrial society, it is impossible to imagine any other viable strategy for the party of the common people."

So progressive populism -- not the kind of rural demagoguery associated with Huey Long, or the racist populism of Tom Watson -- but the feisty egalitarian brand, with its grievances against (non-state) power and privilege and its determination to "use government affirmatively to restore the link between citizen, polity, and party by addressing the actual economic needs of ordinary voters" is in Kuttner's mind the winning ticket for the Democrats.

By "ordinary voters" Kuttner means persons like the blue-collar and "new-collar" workers in Parma, Ohio, whom he described from group interviews conducted by political scientist David Gopoian. They are weak Democrats who often vote Republican. Ticket-splitting is common among them. Gopoian gave them nicknames exemplifying four types: Harry the New Deal Hawk, Mary Religion, Janet the Loyal Democrat and Joe Six-Pack.

"Each of these types," Kuttner points out, "is conservative in one or more respects. Harry admires Reagan's strong leadership and his willingness to use military force. He is your classic gun-toting, flag-waving blue-collar conservative, except that he is an active trade unionist. Mary thinks the Supreme Court shouldn't have banned school prayer, worries about sexual immorality and opposes legalized abortion. Janet resents special treatment for blacks and other minorities. The one thing all these weak Democrats have in common is a gut-level economic populism. Harry thinks big business is too powerful, wants more government spending on toxic-waste cleanup and on education. He doesn't like the New Right social agenda. Mary also distrusts big business, wants more spending on education and toxic-waste cleanup. Janet thinks the government spends too much on military weapons and not enough on reducing poverty, even though she opposes racially oriented affirmative action. And even Joe, the most conservative of the lot, doesn't buy the idea that the free market would work well if government just got off business's back. The only Democratic issue which unites all these sometime Democratic voters is populist economics. Foreign-policy and social-policy issues intensify their divisions." {Italics mine.}

Kuttner, who is economics correspondent of The New Republic and a columnist for Business Week, suggests the platform that will cause these voters to sweep a populist Democrat into the White House. It is largely a high-flying rhetorical agenda, as platforms tend to be. For example: "Full employment, lifetime learning, and worker flexibility. The government might require large employers to set up more explicit career ladders within firms, and the gradual conversion of bad jobs into good ones."

Those of us who wrote messages to Congress in the hopeful mid-'60s will recognize the tone as at once reasonable and lofty, the goal as unobjectionable, and only the modalities in doubt. Perhaps in practice the prescription could be turned into something that bureaucrats might hope to achieve, and that wouldn't cause managements to start thinking about moving to Taiwan or Korea.

But surely there is a discontinuity between the account of the Democrats' dilemma Kuttner gives at the start of his book -- "How do you deliver assurances of job security and living standards to an American factory worker when the interdependence of the world economy creates continuous pressures to lower his wages to meet those of a worker in Manila?" -- and the long shopping list of new worker protections in that last chapter. We don't need to drive working conditions down to Third World levels in order to keep the American economic machine going. But loading the machine with an array of new obligations will not, I think, do much to make it more competitive.

ELSEWHERE, Kuttner's book is about political money, of which the Republicans have much; about party organization and services, in which the GOP also excels; about ideological voices like opinion magazines and think-tanks, of which both parties have a number.

But chiefly it is about the purpose of maintaining a political party: to speak for the aspirations, interests and grievances of a group of citizens; to provide them with a means of political expression and coherence; thus to win and govern. It is Kuttner's contention that the Democrats can serve all these purposes only by following a leftward course. Out on the campaign trail, a couple of the contenders, Paul Simon and Jesse Jackson, are sounding some of the themes Kuttner prefers. Bruce Babbitt would apply a means test for almost any government benefit; that would seem to fit the mold. Richard Gephardt argues for a tough trade policy. Kuttner finds that appealing. It isn't clear to me where Michael Dukakis and Albert Gore fit on Kuttner's economic spectrum.

But the Democratic contest remains, for most of us who follow it from afar, centered on elusive qualities of leadership and temperament -- of personality rather than policy. None of the candidates seems thoroughly committed to an ideology -- populist, liberal or conservative. Perhaps they are all stymied by the historical contradiction that faces any Democrat: a Republican president's tax-cutting and free-spending policies have brought about such a colossal fiscal deficit that much of what any Democratic president would like to do simply can't be afforded, at least for the time being.

This conundrum might be overcome, or at least overlooked, if there were large, urgent and widely accepted spending programs that demanded early enactment, whatever their budgetary effect. Certainly there are large and urgent problems besetting the country: millions in poverty; millions quite unprepared for jobs available today, to say nothing of tomorrow. Huge farm debt; soaring health costs; housing shortages; dangerously weak financial institutions. Disturbing as each of these problems is, there is almost no firm majority opinion about the right response to them, at least in the present economic and fiscal climate.

It has often been the Democrats' role, and sometimes their glory, to respond to the country's needs for public action. Voting majorities have turned out to enable them to perform that role. Then, 20 years ago, the majorities stopped, except during the post-Watergate circumstance of 1976. Whether that is because American voters wanted new songs, or because what needed to be done had in their eyes been done, it is hard to say.

In any event, the candidates now in the field seem not to have found the politically exigent themes that would convert their contest from one of behavior and personality to a grand fight over policy and purpose -- one that will draw millions of voters to their side against George Bush or Robert Dole.

Robert Kuttner thinks they have to stir the resentments, and the aspirations, of millions of people below the median income line, in order to gain the White House. Though I remain a skeptic, he may be right. Certainly in The Life of the Party he has made his case in a forceful, informative way that deserves wide reading and debate.

Harry McPherson, a Washington lawyer and the author of "A Political Education," was special counsel to President Johnson.