Democrats are going through the traditional motions of a defeated political party. They hold conferences and meetings to "rethink" their policies and purposes. But it is a perfunctory operation for the simple reason that the midterm election of 1982 and the national election of 1984 will not be influenced decisively by what Democrats say between now and those fixtures on the political horizon.
Those next American elections are going to be influenced immensely more by what Republicans accomplish in the meantime and particularly by the degree of influence on Mr. Reagan's policies of the self-styled "conservative" wing of his party.
Recent days have seen the conservative influence on the rise. Republican Senate leader Howard Baker has given up his effort to keep "social issues" (busing, school prayers, abortion, etc.) out of the legislative process in Congress until the President's economic program is safely completed.
It was a sound idea to keep those controversial issues on the back burner of the legislative stove. It was sound in that President Reagan has a demonstrable national consensus behind his program for stabilizing the American economy but does not have a demonstrable national consensus on the "social issues."
The Democrats have long since given up any idea of making a serious challenge either on budget or tax cutting. No matter how unsound they may think the Reagan economic program is, they cannot successfully challenge it because the soundness of the program is to be determined by results a year or more from now.
Democrats have the political ability to modify the Reagan program as it goes through the legislative process, but if anything is certain in American politics it is that the public wants to give Mr. Reagan a fair chance to try those measures which he and his advisers believe will restore soundness to the economy. There is no convincing evidence yet of any loss of willingness to let him have his chance.
But there is evidence, a lot of it, that there is no national consensus on the "social issues."
Mr. Reagan's popularity ratings in the public opinion polls showed a sharp drop during the same week in which the Moral Majority forces overcame the Republican leadership in the Senate on the "social issues." I do not think there was an immediate cause and effect relationship here. I do think that by coincidence the public was beginning to see Mr. Reagan more as a partisan and less as a national leader at the moment when the conservative wing of his party was demanding a chance to put its ideas into the legislative process.
Having those issues in the legislative process is going to complicate and slow down the economic program. More than that, it gives the Democrats targets at which to shoot. The economic program itself may become a target. That depends on whether inflation continues to decline over the next year without unfortunate side effects.
If, by a year from now, US productivity is up, unemployment is no worse, and the inflation is down to some manageable figure (such as four percent) nothing else will matter. The Republicans will do well in the midterm elections. They might even capture the House as well as hold the Senate.
But suppose that a year from now the economic program is doing less than ideally. There would be doubts about the soundness of the economic program. Democrats would dare to start shooting at it. And if at the same time the Moral Majority forces have succeeded in keeping the "social issues" on the political boil -- there will be a wealth of other targets for the Democrats, and Mr. Reagan will look even more of a partisan and less of a national figure.
Political parties in the United States rise or decline on what they do in office, not by what they say when out of office. It does not matter what the Democrats say right now. All eyes are on the Reagan administration and its efforts to stabilize the American economy. It doesn't even really matter whether the economic policies are themselves sound in theory. What matters is what happens to the economy, and to the employment and productivity figures.
If things go wrong with those figures by next summer, and if Mr. Reagan is entangled in those "social issues" -- the Democrats will be back in clover.
There is nothing the Democrats can do right now to improve their prospects, but there is a lot the Republican conservatives can do for them. How conservative they really are is a matter of definition. But there is little doubt that they are the best f riends the Democrats have in these days of their doldrums.