FOR DEMOCRATS, the two-year election cycles have become a series of arm-wrestling contests. In the non-presidential off-years, the party puts a strong right arm on the table, forcing the GOP to bend. In the presidential years, the Democratic Party puts up its weak, if not withered, left arm, and with a brutal swiftness, the GOP smashes it down on the barroom table.

There is no reason to believe that the 1990 and 1992 elections will prove any different. The outcome this year revealed President Bush's political liabilities, intensified severe conflicts in the GOP and established Democratic strength in the Sunbelt, provoking a revived euphoria among Democrats hungry to retake the White House. "Two years ago, all the political pundits were saying we are a party in disarray, that we couldn't possibly get our act together and we had no message whatsoever," Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown said the day after the nation went to the polls. Now, "I believe we as a party have taken a giant step towards recapturing the White House in 1992."

In fact, this new-found vitality is built on a fragile structure, dangerously dependent both on continued Republican incompetence in countering the charge that the GOP is the party of the rich, and on a message of fairness and equity that is vulnerable to campaign strategies that divide black and white Democratic constituencies.

Brown's post-election remarks were, in many respects, reminiscent of the comments made by then-DNC Chairman Charles T. Manatt in the aftermath of the 1982 election, when Democratic gains in House, Senate and gubernatorial contests were far more substantial than those of last Tuesday. "So much for Republican realignment dreams," Manatt proudly declared; in the contest for the White House in 1984, "the momentum is ours."

The Democratic Party in 1990 may not be in as bad condition as it was in 1982, and Brown's assessment may prove more accurate than Manatt's striking misjudgment. But under the most optimistic of assessments, the presidential arm of the Democratic Party is, at best, in the process of removing a 22-year-old cast.

The Democratic Party has, in addition, acquired over the past generation an accumulation of closely connected liabilities. These include: a host of officeholders more interested in maintaining the perquisites of office than in making partisan gains; a presidential nomination process that fails to train candidates in the dangers of general elections; and an identification of the party among key voter blocks with racially tinged policies seen as tilted in favor of "those who don't work" against those who do.

The critical defeat of Dianne Feinstein in California is perhaps most revealing on this score, demonstrating the obsessive Democratic concern with protecting incumbents -- even at the expense of failing to take the governorship in the most important state in the nation.

Although all the votes are not yet counted, it appears that Feinstein won the contest among those who cast ballots on election day, but then lost it in the wave of absentee ballots. Absentee voting, a relatively easy procedure in California, ought to be a gold mine for Democrats, an opportunity to guarantee participation by "occasional" voters in overwhelmingly Democratic black and Hispanic precincts. The process is, however, not cheap. This year, instead of channeling cash into a get-out-the-vote, absentee ballot program, Democrats poured an estimated $4 million into a television drive to defeat a term-limitation initiative. The ultimate result was Democratic defeat on both the initiative and control of the governor's mansion.

On a second, and perhaps more important front, Democratic liabilities on racially-charged issues were evident at various spots on the campaign trail -- a liability that is even easier for the GOP to capitalize on in a presidential election year.

In Alabama, Republican Gov. Guy Hunt this year blunted the surging campaign of Democratic challenger Paul Hubbert with commercials showing Hubbert with the black head of the Alabama Education Association, Joe Reed, and pictures of a younger, millitant-looking Jesse Jackson. Just to the North, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) sank Harvey Gantt's campaign in the final 10 days with ads declaring Gantt an advocate of quotas and the beneficiary of a special Federal Communications Commission racial preference program. In California, governor-elect Pete Wilson (R) opened his general election campaign with a large TV buy for commercials accusing Feinstein of advocating quotas. "This is the wedge issue," boasted Otto Bos, Wilson's campaign manager.

Democratic pollsters warn that quotas and affirmative action -- which provoke strong white opposition on their own -- also serve as powerful political metaphors for key segments of whites to convey much broader discontent with a federal government seen as using its power to regulate, to collect taxes and to distribute social-services benefits from a largely white middle class to the much more heavily black poor.

Democrats conducting focus groups in communities surrounding such cities as Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Providence unanimously reported intense, racially based animosity directed at welfare, rising crime rates and affirmative-action programs. "People have stopped mincing their words. These are the kind of feelings that are there, that Democrats can handle in local elections, but in presidential contests, when the death penalty or Willie Horton can be turned into a national issue, they are a {Republican} gold mine waiting to be tapped," said one Democrat who has observed numerous focus groups.

These racial issues can be made to dovetail with Republican, anti-tax stands, if Bush is able to recapture this key issue. The central danger for Democrats is that the "fairness" themes they are now seeking to revive face two hurdles, one demographic, the other attitudinal: 1) The country as a whole has gotten more middle class over the past 20 years; and 2) the underlying race issue turns questions of fairness into dangerous proposals to "take from 'us' in order to give to 'them,' " in the words of one Democratic strategist.

Taxes and race are just the kind of campaign quicksand that Democratic presidential candidates are not trained to handle. That's because the nomination process is dominated by participants and activists whose stands on social issues are well to the left of the electorate at large. In 1988, for example, Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) raised the issue of Willie Horton in his challenge to Michael Dukakis, but among participants in the nomination process, Horton seemed an irrelevant, if not demeaning, issue to raise. Only when Dukakis saw his 17-point lead in mid-summer of 1988 collapse did it begin to dawn on Democratic activists that general election voters have a different world view from their own.

Nor can Democrats count on heavy turnout among the poor and minorities in a presidential election year to aid "them" or the party at the polls, as was true from the 1930s to the 1970s. Mark Gersh, head of the Democratic National Committee for an Effective Congress and a national expert on turnout, contends that presidential year "surge" voting now favors the Republican Party. Gersh said that voter cynicism among poor blacks has reached such levels that efforts to boost turnout in these precincts has become very difficult. In contrast, such groups as fundamentalist Christians and economically conservative young voters are proving to be highly productive targets for the GOP to mobilize when the Republican Party can use a presidential contest to build momentum.

"When we have to worry that turnout is going to hurt us, we have serious problems engaging in presidential contests. A head-on debate that excites the voters becomes something we have to watch out for -- and that is no way to run a political campaign," a pessimistic Democratic strategist concluded.

Thomas Edsall covers politics for The Washington Post.