Legend has it that on the night of the 1962 California primary in which he lost the Democratic nomination for a Los Angeles state senate seat, the legendary Dick Tuck was asked by a radio reporter, with an open microphone, for a concession statement. Candidate Tuck, with lively humor, responded: "The people have spoken . . . the bastards!"
For the past three months, a lot of Democrats, without humor, have been explaining their party's total wipeout last Nov. 6 with the political equivalent of "Blame the Customer." From these, folks are generally offered one or more of four choices of just what sort of cretin the American voter is: (1)a shallow sap who is simply beguiled by the charm of the Republican president (the superficial voter); (2)a neurotic narcissist who is assertively indifferent to the plight of needy neighbors (the greedy voter); (3)a white male who lusts for armed conflict and carnage, preferably with the Soviets, while being secretly scared stiff of women (the macho-sexist voter); or (4)a white male voter who, in addition to fearing and loathing women, harbors equally negative attitudes toward all black people (the racist voter).
Please note that in many circles "macho" has supeseded "racist" and "sexist" as the premier pejorative with which somebody we happen not to like can be tagged. That may also help to explain why white Protestant men, last Nov. 6, preferred the Republican presidential candidate over the Democratic nominee by a margin of 73 percent to 26 percent.
But there is some good news. The public statements of those who last week sought the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee were free of any "Blame the Customer" cant, something for which those Americans who value a robust two-party system ought to be grateful. A robust two-party system requires at least two semi-robust parties, something for which the Democrats have not lately been mistaken.
(The public statements of the chairman candidates, however, did nothing to diminish the unappealing bitterness which was present at all committee sessions. One explanation given for the special viciousness of college faculty politics could be just as appropriately applied to these Democatic National Commitee brawls: the reason they're so venomous is that the stakes are so low.)
The new party chairman, Paul Kirk, who won with the enthusiastic backing of organized labor, does not see the post-Reagan Republicans being easy political prey in 1988. Kirk, after winning, criticized the "not to worry Democrats" who are smugly sure that the "political pendulum will inevitably swing back to the Democrats."
The facts are that in both 1980 and 1984 the Democrats' quite flimsy hopes of victory rested not on rebutting Reagan and the Republican's vision or message, but instead on somehow using the presidential debates to unmask Ronald Reagan, the Messenger, as unacceptable in one form or another.
In both campaigns and all the way to today, the Reagan message has prevailed; the Republicans have set the national agenda and dominated the national debate, and the Democrats have basically reacted.
Kirk has a tough job. He now heads a party that, according to Democratic pollster Bill Hamilton, tumbled precipitately in public esteem. After the election, Hamilton asked a national sample how their impressions of the two parties had changed over the previous four months. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents thought better of the Republicans while only 22 percent thought worse. For the Democrats, the news was terrible. Only 18 percent thought better of that party and 49 percent thought worse.
It's a better than even bet that Kirk will do something in the next couple of months to displease his supporters in labor.
But there is, happily, no more talk coming from Democratic Party headquarters like that drivel of early 1984 about registering millions of unregistered and constructing a coalition of feminists, Hispanics, blacks, nuclear freeze supporters and young voters who were supposed to be concerned about Ronald Reagan's chumminess with Jerry Falwell. And at least for now there is a halt on blaming the customer, which may be the first step back for the Democrats.