My son, who is at that age, popped The Question the other day. My wife tried to answer, and then I tried to answer but the truth of the matter is that neither one of us succeeded in explaining things to him. He asked, "What is a Democrat? I think the answer is that no one knows anymore.

The answer certainly is not evident here at the convention. You could find, for instance, Orthodox Jews praying in a hotel hallway for Jimmy Carter to see the light and ban homosexuals from, if not this planet, then at least this country.

The next moment, you could come across homosexuals who have their own group making plans to nominate one of their own for vice president. You can find people on both sides of the Irish question, too, and someone calling for the napalming of David Rockefeller for reasons that remain a mystery.

Some of this color and diversity can simply be attributed to what is called The City of New York. But the truth is that you would find the same people wherever Democrats gather. It is the party, after all, that most of the people identify with, that they sense will respond to their complaints, their demands. It is elastic, willing to accommodate, to bend, to change, to incorporate. That is its strength. It has also become its weakness.

It's difficult to say anymore what the Democratic Party is about. It's hard to say what its programs are, what its underlying philosophy is, what stands for and where. If it had to choose, it would choose to make the hard choices. The party that stands for everything after a while starts to stand for nothing. It is closer to that now than it has ever been.

Interestingly, of all the groups that normally congregate at Democratic conventions, one is almost missing -- intellectuals. John Kenneth Galbraith can be seen around and Arthur Schelesinger hosted a party and -- way to their left -- Marcus Raskin worked the hotel lobby, actually talking issues. But aside from Raskin, the other two are old John Kennedy hands, whom he brought into the party councils. Jimmy Carter has done nothing like that. He talks neither to Galbraith nor to Raskin.

It's not clear if the intellectuals have stayed clear of Carter of he of them. He used them and their ideas fleetingly for his so-called "malaise" speech of last summer, but the contract was not sustained. The Carter White House, which has a liaison with groups you never even heard of, has none with the intellectual community. It has cost them.

Intellectuals provide a sort of fiber to an administration and a party. They define issues, provide ideas, tell you why you are doing what you are doing. For a long time, in fact, this was a major difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democrats had ideas. They knew where they were going. The Republicans only knew where they had been.

That is no longer the case. It is the GOP that has welcomed intellectuals into the fold. It is the GOP that has listened. Intellectuals are responsible for the GOP's proposed tax legislation, for an entire economic package that you might or might not buy -- but it is clearly an idea. If anything, the Democrats now seem hostile to ideas. The Carter administration, for instance, has no philosophy. What it has instead is a kind of desire to always do the right thing. That's nice, but not exactly profound.

It's conceivable that the political Left is out of ideas. It's possible that the time has come to sound retreat, go into the libraries and the studies and think. As a party, the Democrats seem tired. Maybe they need a rest.

At the moment, though, the party does not seem to stand for much -- or it stands for too much. Instead of ideas, you hear a kind of shrill yelling -- demands from one of the party's constitutent groups who see themselves first as, say, feminists, and only incidentally as Democrats. If they fail to get their way, they can walk. They don't need the party for anything, not even jobs. It's the other way round. The party needs them.

So now in the last convention of the reign of Walter Cronkite, the party seems confused and tired. It will have a candidate who is not popular, who has not been a successful president and who has no ideas that could, even for a moment, make your heart soar.

Soon the party will launch its fall campaign, once again calling itself the party of the people, the party of every group you can name. Maybe it will work again, but someday the Democratic Party is going to have to define itself, figure out what it's all about -- that it is more than what you are if you are not a Republican. Maybe then I can tell my son what a Democrat is.