Sometimes the Democrats recall Chrysler before Lee Iacocca. They have a clunky product that isn't selling and are trying to convince you that it's something new. Something of the same impression was cast by the Democrats' televised repsonse to the State of the Union message. If you didn't see the names or hear the word "Democrat" once in a while, you might have had a hard time knowing which party was speaking. Family, flag, neighborhood, rootedness to the land -- they were all there, complete with a family saying grace around a dinner table on their threatened farm. All this from a party that not so long ago called for proportionate representation on its highest panels of persons of all sexual preferences.
Were the spokesmen -- Sen. George Mitchell, Gov. Charles Robb, Rep. Tom Daschle, Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, Rep. William Gray -- misrepresenting their party? There are several Democratic parties. Democratic national conventions draw delegates with specialized interests -- gay rights, avant-garde feminism, the advancement of the National Education Association. Nominees of this Democratic Party have gotten an average 43 percent of the vote in the last four elections. Then there is the Democratic Party that controls one branch of Congress and most state and many local governments. The tradition-minded, anti-deficit Democratic responders on Tuesday came reasonably close to representing this party. Mr. Gray movingly cited his roots as a black from Philadelphia; then he went on to suggest, accurately, that as House Budget Committee chairman he had pushed not a big-spending confrontational budget but a hold-the-line budget capable of compromise with the product of a Republican Senate.
It seems fair to say that if the Democratic response was somewhat hokey and Middle American, it represented with some degree of faithfulness the party in its workaday life. It was an acknowledgment that Ronald Reagan, in celebrating traditional values and opposing many government spending programs, has set the terms of the political dialogue. It also means that Democrats are responding to the voters and giving them some choice on important issues -- the deficit, farm policy and so on. If America wants this kind of party, the Democrats might say in paraphrase of Mr. Iacocca, we're going to build one.