Declining Donkeydom in Presleyland

By Boyd Lewis

Vol. 1, No. 5, 1979, pp. 6

It was 100 years ago that cartoonist Thomas Nast decided to portray the Democratic Party as a flop-eared jackass and the Republican Party as an elephant of clearly low-wattage intelligence. Amazingly, neither party felt insulted by the nasty Mr. Nast and over the years the animal icons came to symbolize party identity and outlook.

Some years the impish little Demo donkey romps merrily around the ponderous GOP elephant and in others the elephant stomps the Bejesus out of the donkey in the manner of a wonderful underground cartoon called "Bambi Meets Godzilla".

Politics has meant Party and Party has meant Politics for as long as anyone now alive can remember in this country. But in Memphis this December, amid a Wagnerian weather scheme that featured tornado warnings, howling rainstorms and an ice incrustation, the mainstream part of the USA showed that it is now held together by spit and bailing wire. The donkey is fast going the way of the dinosaur.

The Democrats were lured to Memphis for its first mid-term conference under the impression that the city would be warmer than conventionseeking Denver and drier than Seattle, another contender. As it turned out, it was colder, wetter and more miserable than almost any place in the country for the entire run of the miniconvention.

And the Democratic National Committee thought Memphis would represent a massed hymn to the policies of Jimmy Carter, a highly publicized show of unity, joy and Prussian organization. But as with the weather, Memphis was a ferocious disappointment. The party's 2,700 delegates and alternates, the insiders in the 1976 campaign and footsoldiers for 1980, were split seven ways from Sunday on the most basic issues of party policy how well or poorly Carter has been doing, how the Democrats should deal with health care, defense, urban development and employment in the next election.

What was excruciatingly clear in Memphis was that the grand old coalitions which have kept the Democrats in power or close to it since the days of Franklin Roosevelt are no more. Gone is the linkage of organized labor, liberals, the cities, Blacks and the poor which interwove the special interests of each into bloc votes for the Democrats.

The George Meany/Alan Barkan/COPE/Teamsters variety of labor political operatives boycotted the Memphis gathering. Unions that did show up - NEA (National Education Association), AFSCME (Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees), auto workers, machinists and the like - were all hotly opposed to the president's domestic spending slashes and they provided the core of disenchantment on the conference floor which put lump after lump in the smooth, controlled flow of resolutions from the delegates.

White liberals, the veterans, the antiwar movement supporters, the environmentalists, Clean Gene, HHH and McGovern supporters, either closed ranks with the party hierarchy or pecked away at the edges in flaccid coalitions like the Democratic Agenda.

New coalitions rose and the most stunning was the woman's caucus. The women and the women alone held together through the conference, got most of their resolutions passed and got ringing endorsements of the ERA from Jimmy on down the line. Indeed, the only thing Carter said at his keynote address which got the delegates to their feet was his reendorsement of ERA.

But beyond the internal events of the mini-convention, the Democrats and the Republicans are in big trouble. More voters failed to vote in the 1976 election (71 million) than there are registered Democrats, the party which runs most states, Congress and the White House. Few people vote straight party tickets any more. Single issue voting (tax relief, support of Israel, outlawing abortion, etc.) undercuts the entire rationale of a political party, which strives to provide a little of many things to the most people.

In Memphis, the donkeys of December met to show unity but revealed down-to-the-heart fractures; to support Carter but only by 2/3 of their votes; to discuss issues but only in a rigid format that choked off debate and angered the little democrats: to reinforce coalitions but saw them fall and new ones arise.

But most important of all, the Democratic Party failed to deal with a threat to its reason for being - the party of government helping, not government obsessed by the bottom line. President Carter's $l5-$l8 billion cuts from health, job, city, education and minority assistance programs while boosting the Pentagon's budget II percent for the next fiscal year is seen by party liberals as sheer neoNixonism, a Republican ploy if ever there was one.

Carter's junking of the party's basic philosophy was given little serious debate by the Memphis miniconvention. Those probing for cancer in the party's body politick need look no further than that.

Boyd Lewis is an Atlanta free-lance writer.