HOW CAN THE Democratic Party come back? Only if the leadership of those groups that form the fundamental core of our party realize that their constituencies together no longer confer a majority status upon our party. We must win back the middle class that has drifted from our ranks.

Winning back middle-class voters does not mean rolling back the clock on hard-won gains for black Americans, or adopting a let- them-eat-cake attitude toward the nation's poor.

We cannot resume our dominant position unless we can convince some of those who are part of our party's inner circle that their own agendas are less important than a broadly acceptable program for the party. We must begin again to speak directly to the voters whose votes we seek and not filter our message solely through groups claiming to represent them. If we mean to speak to the rights of women, we must address them directly, not through the leadership of the National Organization for Women. If we want to improve education, we may need to suggest reforms in the educational system over the objections of the National Education Association.

In four out of the last five presidential elections the great middle class of this country has rejected our party and its message. Irresistible changes and the success of our programs have transformed most of the coalition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "outs" -- ethnic, religious and racial minorities, the urban working class and southern whites -- into middle-class "ins."

We have been appealing to a nation of the disadvantaged whose ranks have been substantially reduced. And we continue to address ourselves to the constituency necessary to win presidential elections -- the middle class -- as though it were a conglomeration of racial, ethnic, religious and economic factions needing individually-tailored appeals rather than as a broad-based majority with common concerns.

With the Depression half a century behind us, with our country enjoying a generation of prosperity without precedent, we Democrats confront a dilemma: How to make our programs relevant to a hard-working, prosperous middle class without losing our soul -- without sacrificing our concern for those who still do not have the opportunity to realize America's promise. I believe it is possible for us to recapture the support of the middle class without relinquishing our guiding principle that America's true strength lies in a community of interests, spiritually and materially, expressed by the collective will of our people through our government. We must continue to believe, with Hillel, that, "If I am for myself alone, what am I?"

The burgeoning postwar middle class became increasingly disenchanted with the national Democratic Party because of four historic developments: excessive identification with interest groups; increased tension between poor and working-class Americans; the impression of a post-Vietnam unwillingness to defend American interests abroad, and, the difficulties of pursuing equal rights for all our citizens.

First, our most successful Democratic presidents -- Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson -- identified themselves with the plight of people, with the average guy fighting adversity to succeed. But in the last two decades we became identified with the leaders of interest groups rather than the individuals they purported to represent. The rise in the interest-group state mirrored our decline as a party as these constituency groups ultimately swallowed the party whole.

The so-called party "reforms ' led by George McGovern after the 1968 convention displaced elected and party officials attuned to middle class opinion and replaced them with interest group representatives more interested in their own agendas than a broad-based party program. As a result of this trend, by 1980, fewer than 50 of the 3,300 delegates at the Democratic convention were members of Congress.

We have balkanized American society, fitting people into categories -- teachers, environmentalists, union members, feminists, gay rights advocates, southerners. We communicated with group leaders in Washington and adopted their agendas, while Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were appealing directly to their members. We unwittingly patronized the rank and file, ignoring the reality that people decreasingly identify themselves or vote as members of groups.

The concept of group identity reached its zenith when the 1984 Convention created a Fairness Commission whose membership must be "equally divided between men and women, and shall include fair and equitable participation of blacks, Hispanics, native Americans, Asian-Pacifics and persons of all sexual preference consistent with their proportional representation in the party."

Relations between Jimmy Carter, the last Democratic president, and the party's interest groups illustrates the problem. In the early 1976 Democratic primaries, much of Carter's attraction was his independence from organized groups and Washington's bureaucracy. Desiring to unite the party as the convention approached, he embraced many of the groups that opposed him and their agendas, blurring his own message. The more he appeared to be just another regular Democrat, the more his initial huge lead over President Gerald Ford shrunk.

Once elected president, he was repeatedly bombarded by labor, urban, health care and minority leaders for failing to spend enough on their agendas, despite his major economic stimulus, jobs and urban programs. The Democratic Congress, sensing the mood of the country, resisted many of the proposals, such as the Consumer Protection Agency, made by Carter on behalf of the constituent interest groups.

A second historic change in emphasis came with the Great Society's War on Poverty, which inadvertently exacerbated tensions between working-class and poor America. New Deal Democratic programs were broadly available to all Americans in need. Social Security provided benefits regardless of income; everyone's bank deposits were insured; farm programs saved the family farm for a generation; the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps jobs programs were available to anyone unemployed, regardless of station in life.

The Great Society programs, however, were largely designed to benefit the poor, creating resentment in those just above the income cut-off necessary to qualify for benefits. The middle class paid for -- but was barred from participating in -- programs designed for the poor. It is not accidental that the most popular -- and most politically untouchable -- Great Society program is Medicare, which provides health care benefits to all elderly citizens regardless of income.

The third historic shift in emphasis occurred in the party's view of the role of U.S. power in the world. The nation's Vietnam debate was played out under the Democratic Party's umbrella.

The lessons from Vietnam drawn by many in the party have led to an inability to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate uses of U.S. power, in Lebanon, Central America or Iran. The party whose presidents, despite Republican isolationism, committed American forces to the defense of freedom in World War I and II, Korea, and during the Cuban blockade, was seen by many middle- class workers as unwilling to use our strength to protect our interests.

The 1984 Democratic platform indicated an unwillingness to use American military force if the Persian Gulf was closed, effectively telling Western Europe and Japan to defend it themselves -- a message that inspires confidence in neither our allies nor in middle America.

The fourth significant change occurred in race relations where, regrettably, doing what was morally right cost the party middle class political support, both among urban workers and southern whites.

From the end of the Civil War until the end of the Roosevelt era the Democratic Party ignored race relations legislatively.

Harry Truman's stand for civil rights in 1948 led to the Dixiecrat revolt and the beginning of the modern Republican Party in the South. Since then, Lyndon Johnson is the only Democrat to have won a majority of the nation's white vote. Jimmy Carter, a native Southerner, did not win a majority of even the Southern white vote in 1976. Walter Mondale got only one out of every four white votes in the South and little better than one in three nationwide.

White flight from the party is not mainly race related -- but neither is it happenstance that it coincided with Democratic identification with black aspirations.

In the South, where I grew up, and elsewhere, whites have finally accepted the idea of full equality. But the party seemed to change the definition of equality -- from guarantees of equal opportunity to guarantees of success. We must continue to support affirmative action -- ensuring that places will be made available for qualified members of minorities who have historically been discriminated against -- while at the same time we make clear our opposition to quotas, which insist on rigid results whatever the circumstances.

Regardless of the political price, our commitment to what is morally right cannot be compromised.

Yet the activist core of our party must realize that if the party accedes to demands that run against the grain of public opinion -- such as our legislative commitment in 1977 to use massive federal outlays to reduce unemployment to 4 percent -- their constituencies may wind up with no loaf at all rather than even a half. Capturing the party will be an empty prize if it can't win an election.

Our constituency groups must -- and ultimately will -- realize that their own interest lies in winning elections, not in the pyrrhic victory of capturing a party that continues to lose.

What we need more than new programs is a reestablishment of our basic values. Ultimately, the message of the conservative right is a sterile and selfish one of an atomized society with everyone fighting for himself. The middle class will respond to a broader vision of a society that recognizes that real progress comes when we all move forward together, that national strength derives from a shared sense of sacrifices and commitments for the general good, that no society is fully secure until opportunity and security are broadly extended to everyone. We can recapture Robert Kennedy's spirit that made white workers recognize that black ascendancy was not a threat to them but rather a completion of their own American dream.

We must first recognize that the past 10 years have been difficult economic times for the middle class. Their after-tax incomes actually fell in real terms from 1970 to 1981, due to flat real incomes and rising tax burden. Three major recessions since 1973, two major bouts of double-digit inflation, soaring interest rates and a changing economy postponed retirement plans, excluded many from home ownership, threw breadwinners out of work, dashed hopes for upward mobility, made college educations astronomically expensive, and required housewives to enter the workplace to make ends meet. A drowning man has little time to listen to appeals about others less fortunate. The middle class was drowned by burdens we largely ignored.

To these financial burdens were added social concerns as middle-income children were tempted by drugs, cults, promiscuity, and alternate lifestyles. Far from voicing similar concerns, we were seen as flirting with decriminalization of marijuana in the 1970s and of promoting gay rights in the 1980s. When middle-class Americans see us addressing their problems, and as their real incomes improve, they will be more willing to address the problems of those lower on the economic ladder. Instead they saw us accuse them of spiritual malaise, support new spending programs for others with their tax dollars and suggest that alternate lifestyles were equally acceptable to traditional ones.

In 1984, rather than support a continuation of tax cuts for the middle class, but not the wealthy, we proposed tax increases for them. Rather than suggest a one-year across-the-board spending freeze in which everyone would be asked to sacrifice, we proposed billions of dollars of new domestic spending in the face of $200 billion deficits.

We must convince the middle class, and ourselves, that we are a party that can adapt to change. We, not the Republicans, have come to represent the status quo, forgetting FDR's admonition that "the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another."

Instead, we defended with equal zeal programs that worked and those that did not. We played into the hands of those philosophically opposed to any social role for government and simultaneously undercut middle class support by failing to modify or scrap programs that didn't work and, equally, by failing to rejoice in the accomplishments of the great number that did.

Democratic programs helped provide college educations for our GIs and later for many other Americans, electricity for rural America, TVA to develop an entire region, dams to provide water for the arid West, the Job Corps for the hard-core unemployed. Food stamps virtually eliminated hunger. All worked. Between 1960 and 1979, Democratic programs helped reduce the number of people in poverty by over 12 million, from 22 to 12 percent of the population.

Yet polls showed most people believed the party's anti-poverty programs had little or even a negative impact on the poor, in part because we failed to take credit for our accomplishments for fear doing so would deter new spending to expand them.

Since we are the party that believes in government, it is time we defined a modern role for it that enables the middle class to believe we will be wise trustees of their tax dollars. We must demonstrate we will make government better before we make it bigger.

Our principle should be first to seek private sector solutions to national problems, as with the economic deregulation of various industries begun by President Carter. Next, if free market solutions alone are insufficient, we can craft government incentives, such as tax credits for job training or research and development, to encourage the private sector to perform activities in the national interest. Only if these alternatives are unsatisfactory should we seek purely public solutions.

We must assure rigorous review of programs to separate what works from what doesn't; we must increasingly condition federal aid on contributions from their beneficiaries -- whether industries seeking trade relief or states seeking federal projects -- and we must move from income support programs to job training programs. And we can define a new role for government in the fiercely competitive world marketplace -- not to erect protectionist barriers but to help our businesses compete abroad, to encourage labor-management cooperation, to improve industrial competitiveness and to retrain workers displaced by international competition.

We should also broaden access to some programs, generating more equity and more middle class support. For example, job training and employment programs should be open to anyone unemployed for long periods of time, regardless of income.

We must also convince the middle class that a Democratic president will defend the vital interests of the U.S. around the globe through all necessary means -- political, economic, and military.

Finally, it is time for Democratic elected officials to realize that their fortunes are linked to that of the national party. It is an exercise in self-delusion if they think the hemorrhage in middle-class support for our presidential candidates will not lead to further bleeding at their political level.

They must take back control of their party and its platform, which only they can implement, for it is only they who have stood before the broad electorate for approval.