Another group of Democrats is meeting in town today to thrash out the future and share political tea leaves. Some are claiming that Ronald Reagan's enormous victory was not a mandate because he fuzzed the issues and carried so few new allies into Congress. Certainly it was a lonely landslide, like the one briefly enjoyed by Richard Nixon. But make no mistake. The voters were not confused by the puffery. They heard Reagan say: "This election offers us the clearest choice in many years; whether we go forward . . . making America strong again; or turn back to policies that weakened our economy, diminished our leaderhip in the world and reversed America's long-revered tradition of progress." The voters also heard Mondale proclaim: "Tomorrow we can prove that this country belongs to you and you're taking it back in your hands. . . . The choice is clear. If you let them make history tomorrow, they'll turn your future into a future you never wanted. Don't let them do it. Don't let them do it."
Unfortunately for Democrats, a solid majority of the 92 million voters believes that Reagan offered the better hope for American strength and economic growth. Mondale, the best efforts of the Democratic Party and all the talk of fairness simply were not convincing. Neither the man nor the message touched the chord for 1984.
In the wake of such defeat, important Democrats have already rushed forward with their answer: steal the other side's message to pick up the straying white voters. But what will be the message? Less government, more military spending, prayer in the schools, outlawed abortions? Reagan has the corner on these themes, and people prefer the real thing to a political copy.
Without doubt, many white voters feared the power of minorities under a Democratic regime. Yet, are Democrats now to distance their loyalist followers to traverse the terrain pioneered by Ronald Reagan? Such a path would be morally and politically dubious.
Still other Democrats come forward to counsel patience: wait long enough and the economy will crash into our hands. In other words, run with Chicken Little, believing the economic sky is falling in on Reaganomics.
In the face of 1984, such tactics are understandable, but they won't work. Leadership for the period ahead demands more than imitation or clever passivity. In not too many years, the United States will shrink to but 4 percent of the world's population. Our military allies will have become fierce economic competitors, and our major banks will still be looking to the poor of Latin America to lower their standard of living to ensure continued interest payments.
But if Demcrats have problems, so do the Republicans. Reagan now confronts a restive Congress and a thicket of issues devisive to his constituency: arms control, balancing budgets in a shaky economy and responding to the doctrinal cross-pressures of supply-siders, monetarists and gold-standard advocates.
Tax simplification and budget cutting are the winter book favorites for 1985. Yet, if recent history is a guide, paralysis will be more likely than serious pruning of government spending. As for tearing up the tax code only to bring forth a mouse in the form of no additional revenue, forget it. The Internal Revenue Code embodies the very structure of power in our society. Its delicate interrelationships will not be changed lightly.
So what can Democrats do? In the short term, they can help on the one issue that Ronald Reagan is uniquely positioned to confront: settling down the arms race. Although his staff is sharply divided, and his rhetoric often contrary, President Reagan has the potential to do something similar to what President Nixon accomplished when he opened relations with China and formalized the first phase of d,etente with Russia. Jesse Helms and the super-hawks, as Richard Nixon calls them, will be a major stumbling block. In the face of such Republican struggle, Democrats can play a decisive role for the president, the country and themselves. With better U.S.-Soviet relations, military spending can be handled with less emotion and the nation's attention turned to other issues, more prone to Democratic solutions.
But the winning Democratic agenda will not emerge quickly. It will require serious thinking and an honest examination of the limits our past policies have run up against. The Republicans and their conservative allies have spent years honing their theories and building up a network of journals and think tanks to strengthen and disseminate their ideas. Democrats must commit similar intellectual and political resources and realize that campaigns are often the captive of notions spun out years in advance.
What might some of these notions look like?
First, a national strategy that would enable Americans to both enjoy high wages and compete with nations that combine 21st century technology and 19th century wages. We don't make the rules of global competition, but increasingly we must learn to live by them. That means our literacy, our skill and our work product must equal and surpass our international competitors'. In this effort, all Americans need to participate. In the future we won't have enough talent unless we affirmatively reach out to those left behind.
Second, a recognition that America has a special role as the ultimate defender of freedom. A great nation must project its power and use its strength to protect the values undergirding its existence. In the nuclear age, the rules have changed but not so much that America can retreat to a fortress. We must be actively engaged in creating a more just world order in which every nation has a stake. In this endeavor, military force will remain a part of the equation, and Democrats must clearly articulate their principles for its wise use. Third, the religious revival in America is real and widespread. Millions of citizens are searching for spiritual and moral values beyond mere individualism and material acquisition. Public policy must take these yearnings into account. The demand for prayer in schools and the growing political involvement of churches reflect strivings that will not be satisfied by avoidance or condescension. In the future no party is likely to govern unless it goes beyond economics and comes to grips with the fundamental values of our society.
Finally, Democrats must acknowledge the disabling impacts that lie within the benefits of the welfare state. Walter Mondale spoke of taking the country "back in your hands." But the voters didn't believe him. They sensed no empowerment from a continuation of past Democratic policies. Thus, the last challenge: how do we enable individuals and communities to take greater control over their lives and become more self-sufficient?
Ronald Reagan won on one issue: strength. For those who would replace him, tell us how, in a chaotic and competitive world, we may be both strong and free.