''Pssst!'' says the man lurking in a soiled raincoat in a dimly lit doorway. ''Wanna buy an attack video -- see politicians naked?'' It is a tape, unedited, of Democratic candidates debating at the Kennedy Center.
Buy it, but be warned. You will wear out your VCR's pause and rewind buttons as you mutter to yourself, ''Surely he didn't say that!'' and, reviewing, you see that he did.
The front-runner, Jesse Jackson, says, ''Since 1973 we've lost 38 million jobs.'' The rap musician of American politics is into rhyming, not reasoning, and may count as ''lost'' any jobs that disappear as a result of economic dynamism that is causing the total number of jobs to rise. (Think of the lost jobs in the buggy-whip industry between 1900 and 1920.)
In any case, in 1973, 85.4 million Americans were employed; today 112.7 million are. When Jackson says ''58 cents of every federal dollar is spent on military build-up'' (actually, defense is about 28 percent of the budget), his five frightened rivals sit like stumps, pretending not to notice the nonsense. Presumably they are saving their gumption for when they stand up to Gorbachev.
Some people say it is condescending not to take Jackson seriously as the front-runner. The real condescension is in not judging him by serious standards. Not since George Wallace has there been a candidate so uninhibited by facts. Like Wallace, Jackson has the freedom that comes from knowledge that he will not be on the ticket.
Jackson asked those in the Kennedy Center audience to raise their hands if they owned an imported VCR. Then he asked for the hands of those who owned an MX missile. You see, he said, ''We're making what nobody's buying.'' The audience, overflowing with liberalism, applauded, unconscious of the racism that made them patronize Jackson rather than laugh him off stage.
The New Republic, which knows that its journalistic DNA will drive it to endorse one of these men 12 months from now, notes gloomily: ''Jackson's positions are only slightly more egregious versions of the party consensus anyway.'' By ''party'' read ''party activists.''
At the Kennedy Center, Albert Gore noted that most Democratic voters, unlike most of the party's activists, leaders and presidential candidates, approved of the use of force in Grenada and against Libya.
Paul Simon, who says foreign policy should be based on ''caring for people,'' lifted his pinafore and cried ''Eeek!'' when Gore let loose this mouse of a thought: the United States has vital interests that must be defended. Coupled with Gore's accusation that some Democrats can ''not get over the idea that America must always pull back,'' this was denounced by Gore's rivals, and especially Simon, as divisive.
Richard Gephardt took a fling at fierceness toward the Soviet Union: ''We have got to ask'' -- an exquisite choice of verb -- ''them to get out of Afghanistan and to stop some of the things they've done. But by the same token, we've got to be willing to stop some of the things that sometimes we have done.''
Unable to leave tepid enough alone, Gephardt, who probably worries that some Iowa ''peace'' lobby will suspect him of cold warriorism, could not resist adding a dash of moral symmetry. But perhaps there is progress, of sorts, here: the ''blame America first" Democrats have moderated. Now they are merely ''by the same token'' Democrats.
There is something wrong when a presidential candidate (Gephardt) is reduced to saying things like, ''There is something wrong when the most important businessman in this country is Ivan Boesky.'' Part of what is wrong is the ''sound bite'' nature of these debates, in which a candidate (Gore) finds himself saying he wants to ''take my full 30 seconds'' to discuss the Middle East.
Alas, a few seconds are sufficient rope for some to hang themselves with. Mike Dukakis explained that he opposes the Midgetman missile because he wants to spend the money on conventional forces. But he went a tad too far.
He said: if force is ''ever used,'' it is apt to be conventional force, not strategic nuclear force. Evidently the Dukakis doctrine is that Midgetman probably never would be launched, so it would be a waste. That is, deterrence is not a ''use.'' The New Republic reserves special disgust for Dukakis, who, it says, ''parrots the left isolationist line -- not an isolationism from strength, which is the style of the right, but an isolationism of weakness and abdication.''
A London food critic recently described a restaurant as offering ''nouvelle cuisine with the food added.'' Who will add food to the Democrats' lite politics? It certainly is less filling than it should be.