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Democrats in Massachusetts need to stoke the party coals

The Democratic Party in Massachusetts, like the fabled ``old gray mare,'' just isn't what it used to be. It has the numbers -- nearly 1.5 million on voter registration rolls -- but its solidarity and direction is increasingly unclear. The state party's recent issues convention in Springfield might have been a vehicle for closing ranks, but it appears to have fallen far short of that goal. The gathering of more than 3,500 party faithful last week to produce a new Democratic platform had about as much spark as the ashes of an old camp fire and was nearly devoid of any stimulating discussion of issues.

The document itself is little more than a restating of positions taken in past platforms. And changes pushed by various interest groups within the party made the finished product more of a shopping list than statement of principles on which the party and its candidates could stand.

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The platform substantially reflects the views of party liberals and moderates rather than conservatives and offers little hope for attracting new voters to the party. Few of more conservative party members were on hand, although the proceedings were aimed at pulling together what have become in effect two quite different factions.

Prospects for a broad-based convention largely vanished three months ago, when convention delegates were chosen at local party caucuses and it became certain that liberals and moderates, ideologically a lot closer to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis than conservative former Gov. Edward J. King, would be the dominant force.

The platform drafting committee, chaired by former US Rep. James M. Shannon, produced a bland document that most Massachusetts Democratic loyalists (and even some Republicans) could live with quite comfortably.

Several amendments, however, did take the platform in a more liberal direction.

One of these added planks endorsed raising the income level to qualify for state welfare payments, so that it meets the federal poverty standard. Governor Dukakis warns that the move, under which more people would qualify for relief, would cost Massachusetts $500 million that it does not have.

The convention was, as State Democratic chairman Chester G. Atkins observed, pretty much of a ``love-in.'' Some 16 percent of the accredited delegates didn't show up. There was a minimum amount of outward disagreement. It was far from the familiar intraparty skirmish with which Bay State Democrats have become identified.

The conference also lacked a high-visibility keynote speaker. Technical problems forced the cancellation of a four-minute videotaped address by US Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, who is not exactly well known among party activists here anyway.

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``I don't know who he is, or care about his remarks,'' quipped state Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti. The veteran Massachusetts official, who was in Springfield but chose not to attend the convention. He is among those who feel his party should be moving nearer the political center.

Also conspicuous by his absence from the truly forgettable proceedings was US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. US Sen. John F. Kerry was there and scheduled to speak, but decided not to.

The gathering's intent clearly was not to showcase any of the party's potential 1988 presidential candidates. And that most certainly restricted those who might be asked to deliver the keynote address. Still, there must have been some reasonably prominent party member to fill the slot -- perhaps former US Sen. Paul E. Tsongas or New York Mayor Edward I. Koch.

Despite its shortcomings, the idea of an issues convention and its goal of making the party ``more inclusive'' is indeed laudable. So, too, is the desire of many Bay State Democratic activists, including Dukakis and Chairman Atkins, to demonstrate that the party is not merely a collection of special interests, as opposition forces charge.

But such efforts fell somewhat short, since the party's various traditional constituencies, like organized labor and antinuclear forces, were very much present and active in toughening or tilting platform planks in the direction of their causes.

Other states considering similar gatherings to rewrite or update their party platforms should see to it that the delegates, no matter how chosen, actually do reflect a true cross section of registered Democrats.

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