The Democrats' Lines Sound Awfully Familiar In Life magazine, Sen. Kennedy of Massachusetts offered 3,000 words on "Where Democrats Should Go From Here." Discussing defeats in the past two presidential elections, he said that "the Democrats have been a minority party, able to win nationally only when the people, alarmed or distressed, found it necessary to be 'saved' from the Republicans."

Before listing some "guiding principles" for success, Kennedy wrote that building a Democratic record "requires in part opposing a fantastically popular Republican President who is not a candidate for re-election and who has shown marked success in isolating himself from political attack."

The Sen. Kennedy is John F., then 39, in the fourth year of his Senate term and writing in the March 11, 1957, issue of Life. I came upon the issue the other day in a secondhand bookstore that had a pile of Lifes from the 1950s stacked under a shelf in a side aisle.

Much of Kennedy's article -- a cover story accompanied by a photograph of the smiling future president -- could be rerun today and read as if it were untouched by age. Last week, in fact, the second Massachusetts Kennedy in the Senate delivered a speech that had the same tone of his older brother's article: long-term worry mixed with calls for short-term success. If you have a hunch that you've heard it all before, hunch no more. You have. Both Kennedys had interchangeable lines.

John Kennedy in 1957: "Untold numbers of the aged and chronically ill need congressional action before they can get decent hospital beds and economical medical care."

Edward Kennedy in 1988: "A further guiding principle I advocate for domestic action is a genuine commitment to decent health care for all who need it."

John Kennedy: "Nearly two-thirds {of the work force} will continue to have no federal protection against substandard wages unless we can greatly expand the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act."

Edward Kennedy: "No man or woman who works full time should be forced to work a lifetime for sub-poverty-level pay."

John Kennedy: The party "must push forward a progressive program any Democratic candidate in 1960 can run on with pride and hope."

Edward Kennedy: "Opportunities for historic progress are there to seize in this election year, and we must not refuse the summons."

After 31 years, it ought to be occurring to the Democrats that they are not merely repeating themselves in defining the problems but also in offering solutions. The major similarity in the Democrats of 1957 and 1988 is the fearful avoidance of appearing to be too far in front of the public. In two eras, the senators Kennedy painted the Democrats as the party of reversibility: cautiously progressive or progressively cautious.

Either definition leads to the question raised by still a third Massachusetts politician, Michael Dukakis: "Why is it that two-thirds of the elected officials in this country are Democrats, and yet we have lost four of the last five presidential elections?"

Dukakis had an answer a few minutes after Ronald Reagan delivered his State of the Union speech. To reply, the Democrats put forward Sen. Robert Byrd and Rep. Jim Wright, a pair of visionless functionaries who delivered predictable speeches that did little more than make it easier for Mark Russell and Johnny Carson to lead the country in laughter over politicians. How many Republicans, independents or nonvoters, after listening to the rote Byrd and the oily Wright, bestirred themselves to think, "These guys have got it -- I'm going with the Democrats."

Among the party's presidential candidates, only Paul Simon and Jesse Jackson come close to leveling with the public that the Democrats need to form a bloc constituency of citizens victimized by excesses of militarism, corporate power and unaccountable government. That was at the core of every prophetic Democrat who stood out from what Byrd and Wright represent. In national politics, it was the force used by Roosevelt in the 1930s and by Robert Kennedy in the '60s, and why such Democrats as Philip Hart and Paul Douglas are remembered.

Too many of today's national Democrats want to lead, but they hedge, in fear they won't be followed. Like hounds, the public scents the fear. Why support hedgers, it asks.