Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., in a response to what critics have called his party's identity crisis, today reaffirmed the bedrock Democratic belief that government has a "practical, positive, progressive and principled" role to play in national life.
That commitment does not mean, Kirk said, that Democrats stand for massive giveway programs, an image he called a "costumed scarecrow" built by Republicans.
Kirk spoke to the Democratic Policy Commission, a year-old policy-making body that is holding its final session this weekend.
The speech was unusual in that it spent almost no time attacking the Reagan administration or trying to draw up a detailed policy agenda for Democratic candidates for national office.
Instead, Kirk focused on what he said is "positive" about Democrats, extolling their value system based on shared responsibility and praising them as effective leaders with common-sense solutions to state and local problems.
The speech was in keeping with the spirit of the commission, which has spent a quiet year -- uncharacteristic for Democrats -- holding regional hearings and drafting policy papers on the family, the farm economy, the industrial economy, trade, and defense and foreign policy, all with scarcely a ripple of dissent.
At today's session, fewer than half of the 100 members, most of them state and local elected officials, were present. Task force leaders presented the commission with draft reports that generated little discussion or feedback. When one member noted that the needs of the elderly were not addressed in the report on families, Ann Richards, Texas state treasurer and head of the committee on the family, said it was an oversight and promised to remedy it in the final draft, due to be presented to the DNC next month.
Commission Chairman Scott Matheson, former governor of Utah, said the group was determined "not to get involved in current issues on the legislative agenda in Washington . . . . It was not our business."
They talked instead about local success stories, such as Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste's program that puts welfare recipients to work providing subsidized day care for hard-pressed young families, thus addressing two social problems.
Kirk, evidently delighted at the peaceful and upbeat nature of the forum, boasted that the party now could present itself as more than "the brokered sum of countless demands of competing factions applying narrow political litmus tests."
Groups that used to make such demands in party forums -- organized labor, peace activists, environmentalists, women's groups, liberals -- were missing here. Many were meeting today in Washington in a New Directions conference that had no official connection with the Democratic Party.
Kirk seemed to take pleasure in the juxtaposition. And he said he saw evidence of "renewed respect" for the party in the South under his stewardship in his introduction here by Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a conservative Democrat who in 1984 snubbed the Mondale-Ferraro presidential ticket in part because of its identification with interest groups meeting in Washington.