The Democratic Party's "old guard" politicians and allies in organized labor are maneuvering quietly for a return toward the "smoke-filled room" in party nominations and basic campaign decisions.
Many top Democrats feel strongly that unless changes are made in the party's inner structure to strengthen the influence of professionals, the Democratic setbacks suffered on Nov. 4 could be repeated in 1982 and 1984.
The party has been going downhill since "reforms" required that delegates to the national convention and committee members be named under a quota system -- giving representation to women, blacks, Hispanics, or members of minorities generally in a ratio to their percentage in the population.
This system has reduced the role of professional politicians in the party, such as elected state, country, and local officials who influence votes at election time, and of union members who have a substantial stake in the party. Many in these groups are bitter about their subordinate roles -- or no roles at all -- in national and state Democratic conventions.
According to one union official in New York, blue-collar workers -- who are a bulwark of the Democratic Party in that state -- were turned away by television shots of "gay power," ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), and "right to life" shirts, buttoms and signs in a New York delegation to the national convention last summer in which the ranks of labor delegates were sharply reduced from other years.
A number of party "appraisal" meetings in Chicago and other cities have found that since the changes were made to liberalize the party structure, many traditional Democrats no longer identify closely with the party. The consensus is that more votes are being forfeited than are being won.
Already, the first steps are being taken that could lead to the restoration of considerable decisionmaking powers to regular Democrats and to less emphasis on special-issues spokesmen who have pushed into the foreground of the party.
In the maneuvering so far:
* Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, said in Washington recently that the federation may break with its longstanding practices to become active for the first time in presidential primaries. To have "maximum impact" on decisions involving workers, he added, the AFL-CIO might also strengthen its ties to the Republican Party.
Up to now, the federation has stayed aloof from campaigns for party nominations; now, according to Mr. Kirkland, it is considering "a more forceful role" in the naming of candidates.
* House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts and others high in the Democratic Party have met privately with Kirkland and other political leaders from the AFL-CIO and with Douglas Fraser, president of the independent United Automobile Workers, on plans that would return party control to regular Democrats.
The first likely public move: a joint effort to elect a national chairman sympathetic to their views on redirecting the party.
Because any moves to thrust aside the quota system would likely splinter the party more than it now is, efforts will be directed toward giving more power to those considered best able to choose candidates and issues that party members can identify with without sacrificing minority interests.