ANYONE CURIOUS about the confusion over what it means to be a "Democrat" in today's politics ought to read the inaugural addresses of the Democratic governors who were sworn into office this month.
Of course, inaugural speeches are meant to be uplifting, not programmatic; personal and parochial, not overtly partisan. Too much should not be expected of them.
But an inaugural address provides perhaps the only opportunity a chief executive has to try to integrate a philosophy of governing with the conditions facing his administration. Read with that in mind, these Democrats' speeches show a remarkable divergence of opinion. Most striking is the degree to which regional disparities color the attitudes of the Democratic governors. The Democrats nationally hope to demonstrate that they have a full list of alternatives to the Reagan administration's program. But the inaugural addresses of the Democratic state by state show that in the absence of a consistent view of the world, alternatives don't add up to much.
The differences that emerge from the governors' inaugural speeches are those between winners and losers -- between people looking to the past for inspiration and those who believe in the future. What the Democratic governors offered was in fact two sharply different views of America. These two perspectives were most clearly spelled out in the speeches of Ohio's Richard F. Celeste and Arizona's Bruce Babbitt.
Celeste's task was to summon the rich heritage of a once-mighty industrial power now reeling from the shrinkage of America's basic industries to spur his people to overcome hard times.
"Ohioans provided the nuts and bolts to a nation beginning an industrial revolution," Celeste said. "Ohioans provided the muscle and machinery that propelled our nation to greatness. America did not build Ohio. Ohio built America." All past tense.
In Arizona, where the unemployment rate is above 10 percent, Babbitt brushed aside current conditions to offer a vision of an exciting future. "In a real sense, every Arizonan is present at the creation, a participant in the making of history," he said. "Together we are forming every day new institutions, new industries and new cultural patterns. Together we are pioneering the future, unencumbered by a long history of lost opportunities and unwise commitments."
Far from pulling together, Democratic governors in each region seemed willing to exploit conditions elsewhere. New York's Mario Cuomo described "the massive inequity of the new redistribution of national wealth . . . that moves our nation's resources from the vulnerable Northeast and Midwest to the affluent or at least less-troubled parts of the nation."
Texas' Mark White, predicting the Lone Star state would one day become "the industrial and financial leader of the United States," warned: "Other states have stood where we now stand -- on the very edge of greatness. And yet today, in many of those states, the residue of progress is more tangible than the blessings of progress: decaying, congested, crime- ridden cities . . . men and women permanently out of work . . . mounting budget deficits . . . foul air and filthy water . . . and a ravaged, ugly landscape almost everywhere you turn."
A sense of fatalism echoed from the speeches of the Democratic governors who have taken power across the industrial heartland. Wisconsin's Anthony S. Earl described this as a period "when even the absolutely necessary becomes expendable."
The Democratic governors did agree on certain things. They stood up for government! "The agenda for the next four years is formidable, but it is achievable if we do not shrink from our dreams and commitments to conform to an antigovernment ideology which assumes that the best we can expect from the public sector is inertia and incompetence," Wisconsin's Earl said.
Similarly, their agendas amounted to a predictable reaching out to the traditional elements of the Democratic coalition. New York's Cuomo provided fellow Democrats with the most eloquent description of a Democratic philosophy. "I believe government's basic purpose is to allow those blessed with talent to go as far as they can -- on their merits," he said. "But I believe that government also has an obligation to assist those who, for whatever inscrutable reason, have been left out by fate: the homeless, the infirm, the destitute, to help provide those necessary things which, through no fault of their own, they cannot provide for themselves.
" 'Survival of the fittest' may be a good working description of the process of evolution, but a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order, one which tries to fill the cruel gaps left by chance or by a wisdom we don't understand."
But as Cuomo also said, a philosophy of government ultimately is the pattern of lines drawn by hundreds of decisions, and in outlining their attack on the problems they face, the Democratic governors offered little that was new.
There were no innovative ideas for eliminating unemployment, no bold programs to reindustrialize America, no coherent plans for sharing pain and spreading riches, no acknowledgement of the contradictions of the high-tech economy. There was only predictable rhetoric of the need to be bold, innovative and exciting. Cooperation between business, labor, government, academia and other elements of society was an all-too-familiar solution to most problems.
The Republicans succeeded in 1980 because Ronald Reagan effectively articulated a governing philosophy that appealed to many ordinary Americans. His failure has been his and the Republican party's inability to find the tools to make that philosophy come to life.
But if the governors -- the politicians on the front lines in the fight to reconcile scarce resources and enormous human needs -- are a guide, the Democratic party is still searching for both philosophy and tools.