IT MIGHT BE the off season for many of us, but not for the Democratic candidates for president. Most of them have been criss-crossing the country speaking to organizations that are likely to be powers at the Democratic National Convention next year. All six prepared 10-minute videotapes for delegates to the National Education Association convention in Detroit. Five went to Detroit to speak before the League of United Latin American Citizens. The same five were then off to San Antonio for the National Women's Political Caucus. Five will be in Detroit this week for a Democratic Party meeting, and five are expected in New Orleans for the annual meeting of the NAACP.
At each stop each candidate seems to perform a little ritual. First comes denunciation of the Reagan administration and all its diabolical works. Then comes the endorsement of just about every plank in the organization's platform. That's accompanied by an effort to convince the audience that the candidate is sympathetic not only in his views but also in his choice of words. John Glenn, for example, got in trouble with NWPC for using "man and wife" rather than the approved form, "husband and wife."
There's something a little disturbing about this spectacle of candidates trying to convince diverse groups of their orthodoxy. The groups are seeking clues as to whether the candidates, in their hearts, feel as strongly as the groups do about their particular issues. But that is better determined by scrutiny of a candidate's career as distinct from his performance in a short set speech. The candidates, in trying to please or to avoid displeasing the groups, may find themselves endorsing positions that will make campaigning more difficult if they are nominated and governing more difficult if they are elected. They may also end up ceding to groups the most important power a candidate has: that of framing the issues. Instead of using this early stage of their campaigns to articulate their idea of where the nation should move and what government should do, they are trying to prove their adherence to others' positions and orthodoxies. Yet activists don't always reflect the views of those they purport to represent, much less those of voters or citizens generally.
Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election in large part because he articulated such a vision; it was Jimmy Carter who was reduced to appealing in the debate to the separate concerns of various organized groups. Of course the Democrats should pay some attention to the groups they've been appearing before. But they'll do a disservice to their own campaigns if they let those groups set their agenda.