Listen for a moment to Tom Harkin, as he tells the story of why he is a Democrat and why the Democratic Party has a troubled mind.
"My mother was an immigrant and my father was a coal miner with an eighth-grade education who lost what little he had in the Depression. He was in the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, and he was very proud of the work he did then. He was always on the bottom of the heap, and he felt it was the Democrats who were trying to help him.
"My mother died when I way 10. When I was going into high school, my father was 68 years old. I lived with him and my brother, and our total income was less than $200 a month. My father had black lung -- we didn't know what it was then -- and every winter he had to go to the hospital. Every winter he would put it off because he didn't want to have to pay the bills. Finally, he'd get so damn sick we'd have to take him.
"I can remember when I wnet away to college reading the debates about Medicare. I could see it in my dad. At the time, I found it was the Democrats who were pushing for Medicare and the Republicans were fighting it. That had a profound effect on me.
"In college I got involved in civil rights. I found it was the Democrats who were pushing it, when by all accounts it should have been the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln."
Today, Tom Harakin is a member of Congress from the state of Iowa, a Watergate baby, Class of 1974. And on the eve of a potentially divisive Democratic convention, he feels uneasy about his party and like an outsider at this week's climatic events in New York.
"I don't think we have that sense of goals that we used to have," he says. "We don't have the goal of civil rights. We don't have the goal of Medicare. We don't have the goal of assuring jobs for everybody, of cleaning up the environment, of energy self-sufficiency. We don't have goals you can grab onto.
"We've lost," he says, "the soul of the Democratic Pary."
For almost 50 years, the Democratic Party set the political agenda in America, led the great debates, often governed as if there were no opposition party. The Democratic Party -- big broad and diverse -- mirrored the national mood. If there was division it played out within the party. If there was unity, the part reflected that spirit.
Still it rarely lost its sense of vision. Its common core. Today, Tom Harkin is not alone in feeling that somehow the party has gotten off the track.
"The Republicans have the initiative," says Rep. Paul Simon of Illinois. "They're on the offensive now. They came out of their convention united and they are proposing things, while we are kind of trying to hold the fort. In part that is always true when you're the incumbent party, but it is more so when you don't have a sense of direction, a sense of purpose."
Ask any Democrat what the party stands for today and out roll the familiar phrases that held meaning for Tom Harkin as he matured politically: social justice, helping the poor, caring about the needs of working men and women. "I have an almost religious feeling about the Democratic Party, as an instrument of social change and the repository of the hopes and dreams of the average man and woman," says Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter's chief domestic adviser.
But, piece by peace, the Democratic theology has been riddled by the developments and frustrations of the last 10 years. The Keynesian economic consensus brolke up over inflation and a stagnant economy. Today the party stands both for growth and no-growth. The civil right consensus shattered over racial quotas and dispersed as its followers pursued everything from economic rights to rights for the handicapped. The censenus on defense and arms control tottered with America's declining image abroad and the aggressivesness of the Soviet Union.
What is perhaps worse for the Democrats is that the core of their faith -- the belief in government as the instrument of social change -- has been challenged repeatedly by a growing anti-Washington mood. Even on that score, the Democrats are in retreat, straddlling the two camps. Without that stone tablet of federal activism, the center cannot hold.
"The issues are not so clear now," says Midge Miller, a Wisconsin state representative and a cofounder of the National Women's Political Caucus. "Civil rights we knew. You were either for it or against it. It was easy to know whether you were for or against the [Vietnam] war. The women's movement is clear. Either you're for it or against it.
"Look at things today. It's not as though people are for or against the hostages [in Iran]. Nobody is for jobs or against jobs. Nobody is for or against energy conservation. Nobody wants to waste energy. The question is how you solve these problems.On energy, do you do it with decontrol or rationing? Everything is fuzzier. It's more a matter of methods and techniques and style."
The confusion has sent Democrats scurrying in all directions for solutions. As they have dispersed, the Republicans have consolidated. The Republicans now hold majority support on the key issues of inflation and defense. Public opinion polls indicate that on those issues at least, the public believes the Republicans are best equipped to meet the future. "If the election were decided on those [kinds of] issues," says Democratic pollister Peter Hart, "the Democrats would not do well."
Today almost every Democrat has his own version of what the party is about. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has campaigned as "the real Democrat" against Carter's more conservative "new realism." Each has a constituency within the party, but the lines have been greatly blurred this year by the added ingredients of personality and political expedience. Carter has won the support of some Democrats who find Kennedy's liberalism more appealing, while other Democrats who believe Kennedy's liberalism is outmoded have nevertheless rallied to him in reaction to Carter's leadership.
Democrats crash into one another like bumper cars at the carnival as they careen toward their own definitions of the party. As always, they reflect the country. "The country is in a period of transition," Hart says. "The key is the ability to define what's at stake for the future."
Here are how three leading Democrats -- one a leader of the liberal wing, another a black mayor and the third a young senator -- see their party. Their conflicting impressions of what the party was when they first embraced it, what it is today and where it must go illuminate how fractured the Democratic consensus is.
The liberal is Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who went to war as a Republican, whose parents lived and died as Republicans, but who became the Democratic presidential nominee of 1972.
McGovern came back from World War II still believing he was a Republican and entered graduate school at Northwestern University. "After a year of studying history, I came to the intellectual conclustion that the Democrats had been on the right side of the issues. The thing that excited me was that I thought they were more committed to social justice and to small people of the country than were the Republicans."
Today, he says, the party means "less and less" to him.
For McGovern it began with Vietnam. "What your party did on Vietnam crushed my spirit," he says. He also believes "it shattered the Democratic Party."
"A great political party never dies over reforms, but over an issue like slavery or the war or the economy," McGovern says.
Still, McGovern recalls that it was the Democrats who confronted the issues of the war and civil rights. "Those debates all took place inside the Democratic Party," he says, "not between Republicans and Democrats. While we paid heavily for those battles, there was a dynamic process going on. For the last four years we've tiptoed around. The SALT treaty's going down and we still don't have an energy policy. Somehow I see that as a failure of the Democratic Party.
"We're really not offering vigorous alternatives. When Ronald Reagan says he wants military superiority, there's no great outcry in our party. The mood is with the Republicans. People somehow think our party has not been right on the social issues -- gun control, abortion, busing, affirmative action. The Republicans don't get hurt as badly on these as we do."
McGovern says much of this would have happened under any Democratic president, but he says he believes that Carter "has weakened the traditional roots" of the party. "When you have a Democratic president who tries to preempt the Republican Party, it makes it difficult for Democrats to know who we are and where we're going," he says.
The black mayor is Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind. He knew he was a Democrat from the time he became conscious of his father's politics. "My father was a Democrat because Franklin Roosevelt had pulled him out of the effects of the Depression," Hatcher says. "He had, before all that, been a Republican."
The mayor worries:
"Today the party is different because there is greater concern for the problems of the economy and business. The party's tilting in that direction and there needs to be a reassessment because the party is suffering from something of an identity crisis. It needs to understand that people are the base of the party, and they are working people, poor people, minorities.
"The party has to engage in a very painful, honest reassessment of who it is, where it is and how it got there. If it does that, it will recognize that there are certain issues we absolutely have to be concerned about."
"What is clear is that whatever the priorities of the party are -- and that appears debatable -- black people and poor people do not come first. That is very clear. Some Democrats justify these positions on grounds that this is simply a reflection of what's happening in the country. But the party traditionally has swum upstream on social reforms. It took people of courage and vision to stand up and take those positions. There is a need for a good deal of that from people today.
"The people who honestly believe in fairness and justice will stand up. If the party really does believe in justice, it will not use the state of the economy as an excuse not to help poor people."
Hatcher sounds like Kennedy, but this year he has supported Carter for reelection.
The young senator is Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts. He is the first Democrat in a family of conservative Eisenhower Republicans and his political awakening came in the early 1960s with the first of the Kennedy brothers. He joined the Peace Corps and went off in the first wave of volunteers. Later, he worked in Robert Kennedy's campaign and in 1978, with the help of Ted Kennedy, he knocked off Republican incumbent Edward Brooke in the Senate race.
Tsongas calls himself a liberal and this year he has supported Kennedy's presidential campaign, but he believes Democrats are mired in the 1960s, and earlier this summer he challenged his friends in the liberal Americans for Democratic Action to face the future.
"The fact is that I believe that liberalism must extricate itself from the 1960s, when in fact we had the answers," he said. "We must move on to the pressing problems of the 1980s -- and we must have the answers that seem relevant and appropriate to the ($99WORDS OMITTED$99)
Tsongas speaks for a new generation of Democrats, whose attachments are not to the New Deal or Franklin Roosevelt or even necessarily civil rights and the antiwar movement. In his speech he challenged liberals on their opposition to higher energy prices, their failure to recognize the need for tax incentives for business, their timidity in speaking out against Soviet aggression.
Many traditional Democrats believe that Tsongas and his younger allies are the real threat to the party because they are being stampeded by the country's conservative mood into adopting Republican positions. Tsongas believes the greatest threat to the Democratic Party comes from a President Reagan who would abandon his ideological fervor, govern as a realist, and become the new FDR.
McGovern, Hatcher and Tsongas represent three of many strains in the party as it convenes in New York, and those divisions will be aired as a parade of party leaders goes before the television cameras in Madison Square Garden to describe what the Democrats are about.
Stuart Eizenstat, the Great Society liberal who has been tinkering with the New Deal as Carter's domestic issues chief, was asked what overall message he hoped the party could deliver this week.
"That this is a party that recognizes the hard realities of the 1980s, that it doesn't offer a free lunch," Eisenstat said. "Ours ought to be a more realistic -- and yet hopeful -- message."
If nothing else, the Democrats now agree on this much: The hard realities of 1980 have brought hard times to their once vibrant coalition.