The Democratic Policy Commission, the presiding officer announced, would not "compete with Congress."
Former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt -- subbing for the new group's chairman, former Utah governor Scott Matheson -- noted disparagingly that the party once had a policy group which "got off on that, and all kinds of problems came out of it."
Actually, the Democratic Advisory Committee founded in 1956 by National Committee chairman Paul Butler was a stellar collection that included Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt and George Ball. They produced policy pronouncements notable for both substance and style and provided a talent pool from which John F. Kennedy drew heavily to staff his administration.
They also, of course, drove the congressional leadership -- then in the hands of two Texans, Lyndon B. Johnson in the Senate and House Speaker Sam Rayburn -- absolutely wild.
If its opening meeting is any gauge, the new Democratic Policy Commission is not likely to irritate the congressional Democrats, who have been busy these last weeks voting away differences between themselves and the Republicans on such vital questions as aid to the contras in Nicaragua, the MX missile and nerve gas. In fact, since no one mentioned them and their record of collaboration with Ronald Reagan, it seems unlikely that Congress will even notice what transpired at the Shoreham Hotel.
National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. formed the 100-member commission in part to show off the high caliber of Democrats holding state and local offices. His announcement was immediately followed by the formation of a rump group of a more conservative cast, which one Democrat dubbed the "white male southern caucus." It has not been heard from since.
Hunt -- who was defeated in a Senate race with Jesse Helms last year -- contributed little to the discussion, which revealed only what has been known since November: that the Democrats, after the worst national defeat in their history, don't have a clue about what to do now.
Two Midwestern women, State Sen. Dawn Clark Netsch of Chicago and State Rep. Jean Lloyd-Jones of Iowa, who appear to believe that Democrats should be different, spoke feelingly about the need to stop the nuclear arms race and to restore the United States to a position of "moral and humanitarian force" in the world. But no one else talked in that vein and the now-familiar counsel of opportunism as the best principle was expounded by Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin.
Aspin, a leading exponent of the theory that Democrats must be mistaken for Republicans on defense matters, told members they must make political decisions on expensive and even foolish weapons, in the overriding interest of erasing the perception that the party is weak on defense.
He also promised Democrats that if they concerned themselves with such questions as the reform of the Joint Chiefs of Staff system, the "prize is the presidency."
But the first formal speaker, Yale economics professor William Nordhaus, in a room-emptying overview of the economy, said that since the difference between Democratic and Republican budget requests was so trifling, the Democrats might as well drop defense spending as an issue altogether.
Others offered contradictory or simply incoherent prescriptions. Ann Richards, Texas state treasurer, declared, in a carrying voice, that she thought it was "time for a little candor." But she offered none beyond a chilly warning that "the old programs and old institutions simply don't work in this system."
On the other hand, Lee Alexander, deputy mayor of Syracuse, N.Y., spoke against the "tremendous temptation to talk about only new directions."
Gov. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran, opened with a promise about "a startling success story" from the Plains, but failed to tell it, and ended with an unenlightening patriotic burst: He said he was "proud" that we got involved in a war that was wrong and "proud" that we got out of it.
Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis, a little smug about his state's 3.7 percent unemployment rate, said the Democrats should stand for "economic opportunity for all citizens." He gave no blueprints.
As to what it all meant, no one seemed sure. Former governor Jerry Brown of California seemed mildly entertained by the themelessness of the occasion. "You have to clean the wound before you can treat it," he said in as clear a statement as any the day produced.