When Hamilton Jordan, the former Jimmy Carter strategist now running for the Democratic senatorial nomination in Georgia, met a while back with Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, he had blunt words for both Hart and the Democratic Party. Both, said Jordan, suffer from the burdens of being thought too liberal and too wedded to the political past.
Hart, the early front-runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, has his own challenge to redefine himself as something other than George McGovern's 1972 campaign manager and Walter Mondale's 1984 sparring partner.
But in many respects, the Democratic Party's task is even tougher: It lacks a clear spokesman or vehicle for reshaping the image that voters in 49 states rejected in the last national campaign.
The party will take a shot at that assignment before Labor Day, when the Democratic Policy Commission -- the official issues arm of the Democratic National Committee -- issues its final report, titled ''New Choices in a Changing America.'' A look at the nearly completed report and a conversation with party chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. gave me a chance to see both the promise and the peril in this enterprise.
The most positive element in the whole effort was built in when Kirk named former Utah governor Scott M. Matheson to put together a policy body dominated by state and local elected Democratic officials. In the past, Democrats have scavenged for their policy manifesto ideas among the think tanks, interest-group tacticians and the ''government-in-exile'' of retired or defeated federal officials.
While President Reagan scores political points by portraying himself as the spokesman for Americans ''beyond the Beltway,'' Kirk correctly points out that it is mainly Democrats who ''have been out there serving the people in creative, innovative ways.''
State and local government in this country is largely in Democratic hands. The largest virtue of the Matheson report is that it recognizes -- and spotlights -- the success stories being achieved by Democrats from Gov. Michael Dukakis in Massachusetts to Mayor Dianne Feinstein in San Francisco.
The reverse of the coin is that when the report turns to issues that are distinctively the province of the national government, it sometimes turns to mush. The task force on foreign policy, headed by Rep. Stephen Solarz of New York, had a horrendous time reaching agreement. It speaks strongly to issues of South Africa and arms control, but on Nicaragua in particular and on Third World conflicts in general, it is thunderingly silent or murkily vague -- because there is no Democratic consensus.
The trade section threads a narrow line around outright protectionism. It acknowledges the need for basic domestic reforms (by both business and government) to improve American competitiveness, but savors the short-term political advantage in bashing our trading partners.
But all this proves is that it is a political document, written by people who are aware of the approaching election. The healthy thing about the report is that its first premise is that fundamental changes require a fresh address to policy making.
Those changes begin in the makeup of the American family, the division of labor between spouses and the demands these changes make on government in every area from tax policy to child-care assistance. Rather than repeating past dogma on the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, this report says those controversies are fanned by Republicans to divert attention from the real ''family agenda'' of today.
The draft report says its pages demonstrate ''how Democrats at all levels of government are embracing change and easing the dislocations it causes.'' It boasts that the outlines of America's ''new agenda'' have been prepared by ''a new generation of Democrats.''
This rhetoric, of course, harks back to the 1960 campaign, the last time the country faced an election at the end of the tenure of a popular, two-term Republican president.
John F. Kennedy won that election, not by asking voters to repudiate the record of Dwight D. Eisenhower, but by calling on them to move beyond it; by recognizing that new issues and challenges had emerged since the Republicans took office, and by suggesting that meeting those challenges could be exhilarating, not intimidating.
Unless the Democrats are prepared to bet that Reagan's policies lead to war or economic calamity in the next two years, their best hope of climbing back into the White House lies in recreating the themes of the 1960 campaign: the challenge of change and the promise of fresh leadership.
No matter whom the Republicans nominate in 1988, the formidable figure of Ronald Reagan will be on the scene, arguing once again that Republicans represent change and progress, while the Democrats offer only a return to tired and failed policies of the past.
Convincing people Reagan is wrong will be a tough challenge for the Democrats. The Kirk-Matheson report is no more than a modest first step in that direction. But it is a start.