Op-ed about the Democratic presidential contenders

There is a political stirring in our country that could cause a major sea change in American politics this election year. The conventional political analysis has not recognized that this could be a special moment in American history.

For the first time in their lives, millions of people are feeling that they must get involved in politics. Those in the peace movement feel a sense of urgency about nuclear war. For those who are poor and have felt the brunt of President Reagan's economic policies there is a compelling need to reverse the victory of 1980 that made these policies possible.

More than 76 million people, 47 percent of the electorate, failed to vote in the 1980 election. This large non-voting pool disproportionately comprised people of color and low and moderate income. But in 1982, turnout among the unemployed, minorities, women, and struggling blue-collar and government workers dramatically increased. Ten million more people voted in the 1982 mid-term elections than in 1978.

Issue-oriented registration efforts at unemployment lines, welfare offices, food-stamp centers, public hospitals, and public housing projects - efforts that called on poor people to exert their political rights on behalf of their economic rights - helped make the difference in key local elections, such as Harold Washington's victory in Chicago and many Democratic House races.

The get-out-the-vote strategy is critical to the Democratic Party. The black vote, for example, is vitally important in the South. In 1980 Reagan won North Carolina by 39,383 votes, but 506,000 voting-age blacks did not register. In Alabama, Reagan won by 17,462 votes, but 272,000 blacks did not register, and in Tennessee he won by 4,710 votes, but 479,000 blacks did not register. The figures are similar for other Southern states such as South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas.

In the larger urban industrial states, the nonvoters - minorities and whites - could swing the election. A few examples: Reagan won Pennsylvania by 324,000 votes, but 2,989,000 citizens did not register; he won Michigan by 254,000 votes, but 1,745,000 did not register; and in Massachusetts, Reagan's margin of victory was 2,000 votes, but 155,000 did not register.

If this pattern continues in 1984, none of the Democratic candidates can defeat Reagan. But if an additional 15 million people vote, Reagan will lose. It is that simple.

And there is an excellent chance that the massive drives to register voters and get them to the polls will turn out this vote - if a Democratic candidate can speak strongly and directly to peace and economic justice issues and provide some hope; especially to people who have felt shut out of the political process.

It is with this sense of history that the top contenders for the Democratic nomination must be evaluated.

Gary Hart supports the nuclear weapons freeze, but he also supports the so-called build-down proposal, which is a prescription for going ahead with all the new weapons a freeze would stop. This contradiction could hurt his campaign; Hart's major weakness is that he has shown little interest in poor people's issues. If hart is the candidate of the Democratic Party, the economic debate will be irrelevant to the traditional nonvoters, who may once again stay at home.

Jesse Jackson has fully supported the freeze, and, most importantly, has played a key role in mobilizing voter registration among black people. It is vitally important to the Democratic Party that Jackson's "rainbow coalition" have a home in the party and be centrally involved in the 1984 election.

Walter Mondale supports the freeze. He is unequivocally opposed to the build-down, and he has been willing to meet with freeze activists. But he will not win the enthusiastic support of the freeze advocates if he continues to say things like, "I'm against the MX but for the Midgetman, against the B1 but for the Stealth bomber, and for the Trident 2 missile, for cruise missiles, the Pershing 2..."

Mondale has strong support among minorities and the poor. Unlike Hart, he can inspire the have-not vote - a necessary condition for defeating Reagan.

But Mondale has his work cut out for him. It will do him no good to win the nomination if he cannot win the presidential election. Mondale must speak from his heart about economic justice. He must reach out to the millions of people who are committed to a dramatic change in our nuclear-weapons policies and are ready to work for a candidate they can enthusiastically support, He could show the necessary leadership by announcing he will oppose further funding of dangerous first-strike weapons so as not to undermine the possibility of a meaningful freeze agreement.

If Mondale rises to these challenges, he will kindle the strong support of two powerful social movements, the get-out-the-vote movement and the freeze movement. And he will present the Democratic Party with a candidate who can defeat Reagan in November.