Virginia's Democratic governor, L. Douglas Wilder, has been having at George Bush in a very public, systematic and strongly worded way. He has developed his own particular critique, letting the president have it for -- yes -- a failure of conservatism, indifference to the financial pressures on the middle class and total cynicism on civil rights. He is frequently on the road, and he is clearly in the process of trying to tap into and/or summon a national constituency. A lot of commentators have responded to this by saying -- as if they had just ingeniously penetrated a big secret he was trying to keep -- that Wilder must be running for president. (Because Wilder is black, some of the more condescending among them have said he must be running for vice president.)

I assume he is running for something and think the most interesting and heartening thing about it is that he is doing it the old-fashioned way: unashamedly, out loud, as a would-be mobilizer of a broad cross section of people, as a guy willing to stick his neck out and lead. This is not an endorsement, just a sigh of relief and an expression of hope that a new day may be dawning and that others will come out of hiding and join him.

To me the most intriguing aspect of the just completed midterm elections was the relative slimness of the margins by which both New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo and New Jersey's Sen. Bill Bradley won. I have read the many analyses of why this was the case and accept the proposition that both were gravely harmed by local issues. But surely at least some part of the defection each suffered was due to his on-again, off-again, not-yet, not-now, maybe-soon, maybe-not approach to seeking higher office.

When I was holding forth at great length on this the other night, and getting, I fear, a little overwrought, I was admonished by a very bright politician who was present. I had just been denouncing the convoluted, self-protective, no-risk, no-fingerprints manner in which the Democratic would-be presidents had been conducting themselves in recent times. Where the hell were the leaders? I wanted to know. There were all these Democrats looking for someone to guide and mobilize them, and here you had these silent guys waiting until every possible danger had passed, all of which would be revealed to them by their infernal, unending polls. The politician replied that if any of these prospective candidates did as I was suggesting we in the media would trap them, push them to places they were not yet ready to go and pretty much set them on a course they could not control.

He was in fact perfectly right about this. There is an idiotic response we of the press have adopted toward people who go out seeking the presidency. Our analysis tends to be as follows: "Hey, everybody, he is seeking the presidency!" We seem to think that our discovery of the fact not only is worthy of a prize for investigative journalism, but also exhausts the possibilities of commentary and analysis and plain reporting. We just keep adding to the evidence for our great discovery -- e.g., the congressman made four trips to Iowa last month, etc. And always, somehow, there is the implication that there is something vaguely disreputable about the pursuit of the presidency and that we have caught the rascal in the act.

But I don't see why our idiocy should be an excuse for their trembling pusillanimity. I know that there are now all these complicated financing rules that may determine when a person becomes an avowed candidate -- the clock and the money start running at some point -- but it is not necessary to make a formal official announcement of that kind. It is only necessary to stop sneaking around, as so many do, and pretending not to be in the game; it is necessary to stop devoting so much attention to creating and maintaining escape hatches and start devoting attention to creating and maintaining a real constituency of voters. It is necessary to tell people what you think, help them define their own opinions, identify for them the common ground they may share with people in other locales.

Instead we get all this breakfast-food product-testing policy, targeted in special ways to special groups and done on a kind of backstairs basis in the hope that the rest of the electorate is not listening. Politicians are the only people in America who can be spotted on six consecutive winter weekends in New Hampshire motels and not be suspected of what the rest of us would be. But as if they were such miscreants they kind of pretend not to have been there. It wouldn't be "prudent" for them to be noticed.

I am not saying that the Democrats should come back strong with their ancient and by now in many ways obsolete liberal agenda. On the contrary, they need people who can apply abiding liberal values to the life of the '90s. Their problem in the past couple of decades has been that most of the time there has been a disconnect between their quadrennially chosen candidates and the people those candidates purport to speak for. Some of the candidates spring upon the national scene almost unknown, not (as was the case, for instance, with Adlai Stevenson in 1952) because the bosses and elected leaders chose them, but because they had worked the primary gadgetry right. They win as you might win a tick-tack-toe game, that surprise well-placed X just doing the trick. Then the issues are pretty much trolled for by the pollsters and created on the spot. A great deal of this, as has been written and written, is a function of getting the activist caucus people in some preconvention coalition that may not have broad election appeal, but which accomplishes the job of getting the nomination. Speechwriters then produce stirring speeches for the new candidate. In these speeches, you will note, about half the previously nominated candidates are not even mentioned by name, having already been demoted to the status of mere passers-by.

You can find a lot of reasons for all this: the weakening of the Democratic Party, the new technology-driven campaign procedures and so on. But I think the net effect has been bad and that there are at least some stirrings now that suggest the trend may not be forever. Not just Wilder, but a few others, including some in Congress, seem to be speaking out more. There are times when noise is preferable to silence, and adventurousness to discretion. Everything about the old politics wasn't bad.