Try as they might, the Democrats cannot attribute their problems to the temporary phenomenon of an especially popular president. The Senate looks less and less likely to fall into Democratic hands in 1986. The party's margin in the House is a tribute to gerrymandering by Democratically controlled state legislatures, not to electoral popularity. In the 1984 elections, Democrats captured 253 seats to the Republicans' 182, but in total popular votes, the Democrats didn't even win by a nose, carrying the House by less than 50,000 votes out of more than 73 million cast. The Republicans have turned their money, computer technology, television expertise and energies to winning control of state legislatures that gerrymandered the Democrats into control of the House.

Since Hubert Humphrey's nomination in 1968, there has festered among many national Democrats, particularly those who play national committee and presidential nomination politics, a profound lack of trust in the traditional political system and institutions of America. As a result, a host of commissions and caucuses has dominated national committee and presidential nomination processes and subverted mainstream majority rule for 16 years.

What these caucuses reflect is a despair of egalitarian political democracy, an elitist conviction that the national Democratic Party can't trust the people to vote as individuals in a one-person/one-vote milieu. The party establishes procedures to impose the views of the fringes on the majority -- in a host of platform positions and in the single-issue obstacle course Democratic presidential aspirants must master on the way to nomination.

The Democrats in Washington are victims of the single-issue politics they created. Jimmy Carter pressed to set up a separate Department of Education to pay off the National Education Association for its endorsement and contributions during his 1980 campaign. Walter Mondale felt compelled to pander to single-issue San Francisco Democrats by savaging the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill to appease the Hispanic Caucus, supporting a Fairness Commission to soothe militant blacks and gays, and hurriedly select- ing as his running mate a pro-abortion woman from Queens to placate NOW professionals.

Caucuses feed on themselves and breed more caucuses. Once perceived as a unifying organization where disparate elements could together craft a political force of mutual support, the national party has become a loose federation of special-interest groups -- for women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, native-Americans, NEA teachers, the handicapped, Israel, labor unions, Greece, you name it. So if you don't have your own caucus within the national party's decision-making apparatus, you lose because those who do will cut you out. (Paul Kirk's judgment not to accept the Black Caucus nominee is an encouraging, if lonely, straw in the national party winds.)

Moreover, what's good for one caucus must soon be given to all: affirmative action, uniquely appropriate for blacks who have been subjected to slavery and discriminated against at every stage of development, must be given to women, Hispanics, Asians, the handicapped, senior citizens -- so many groups that two Democratic civil rights activists seriously suggested that everyone deserves preferential treatment except white males.

The national Democratic mistrust of American institutions is not limited to the one-person/one-vote concept. It colors the national party's view of many private and public institutions. Over the past decade, the party in Washington has put increasing restrictions on states, not so much to ensure democratic process at the state and local level as to protect single- issue caucuses that feed on the national committee.

The national party has also gotten itself into a number of fringe issues that make it inhospitable to a large segment of the body politic. The party's avid espousal of abortion on demand and gay rights (to the point of resolving in convention to guarantee representation of the gay and lesbian caucus on all policy committees) make the bulk of the nation's Roman Catholics and southern Baptists, as well as most senior citizens and many others, increasingly uncomfortable in identifying themselves as Democrats. The Vietnamization of many national Democrats -- evidenced by their unyielding skepticism about America's motives, their incomprehensible acceptance at face value of so many Soviet assurances, and their knee- jerk rush to embrace the fashionable nuclear freeze -- has driven many John Kennedy-Scoop Jackson Democrats across the aisle to the Republican side.

Too many national Democrats have forgotten that Americans don't elect radical-chic nonincumbents to be their president. Franklin Roosevelt ran on a platform more conservative than Herbert Hoover's. John Kennedy campaigned as the premier Cold Warrior of the century (his speeches were often far more strident than Ronald Reagan's). Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson did evoke progressive values, but both were elected after having served, and both took strong pro-defense, anti-communist stances. While Jimmy Carter was an aberration of Watergate, no one mistook him as a big- government liberal.

Reagan's success cannot be credited to failures of the New Deal and Great Society. Reagan's achievements reflect the power a single-minded president can exert over a fragmented Congress in a federal system, a point Roosevelt and Johnson well understood in their time. But Reagan is immeasurably helped by the Democrats' determination to self-destruct on highly emotional issues that belong with parents and churches rather than politics and caucuses. The party of Roosevelt and Johnson was preoccupied with jobs, Social Security, health care, better education for all, cheap public power, protecting the average American from being ripped off on Wall Street or in the marketplace, a strong national defense. They put coalitions together, cajoled, logrolled, threatened, massaged -- and legislated. Fortunately, they weren't subjected to questions from party caucuses to test their single-issue loyalty.

There's something so self-defeating about the single-issue questions Democrats press presidential aspirants to answer "the right way." Do we really think that having every left-of-center group subject them to litmus tests is going to determine how they act as president? I doubt it. These tests -- for ERA, against defense spending, for the environment (as defined by certain environmental groups), against the death penalty, for abortion, for a nuclear freeze, against merit pay for teachers, for bi-cultural, bilingual education -- have turned our national candidates into caricatures, easy for Republicans to draw in exaggerated images of scores of special interests. As a result, when Ronald Reagan says that the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson is not the national Democratic Party of today, millions of Democrats nod in agreement.

On many issues Democrats have turned into loyalty tests, a truly national party would welcome people who held views on both sides. There should, for example, be plenty of comfortable room in the party for people who oppose public funding of abortion on demand, who oppose including "people of all sexual preferences" on every party committee, who favor merit pay for teachers, who tilt more toward the Turks than the Greeks, who support tuition tax credits.

Emotional engagements over marginal issues have dissipated party resources and diverted attention from the nuts and bolts of national politics. They have stunted fundraising capabilities at a time when computers, electronic mail, television and sophisticated polling are essential ingredients of any serious national effort.

One of the striking things about postmortems among Mondale and Reagan campaign staffers is that the Reagan people could not believe Walter Mondale was operating from the seat of his pants. Reagan's top advisers made their political judgments on the basis of in-depth polling; they kept worrying that Mondale had some line of polls that their experts had not tapped. In fact, Mondale was genuflecting before nomination and shooting from the hip -- things the next Democratic presidential candidate cannot afford to do.

It's not the Democrats alone who suffer from their preoccupation with caucus and fringe politics. It's the country. There are fundamental value differences among our people -- about the proper role of government, how material wealth should be distributed, America's responsibilities in the world, the federal role in education, to name just a few. Our nation needs more than one party with the capacity to play the game with the independent majority of voters. Unless the Democrats get their act together, they won't be able to take the same field with the Republicans in 1988.