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A chance to win on principles

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, leader of the Republican "revolution" of 1995, deserves thanks from all thoughtful Americans _ not for the wisdom, compassion or moderation of this process, but because its extremism forced both parties to confront their basic philosophical differences.

Many politicians would rather fudge these differences: over government's role in boosting job security and equal opportunity, for example, or in preserving the rights of privacy and religious liberty, or in placing the public interest ahead of private interests. But now that these differences are clear, Bob Dole's reluctance (or inability) to articulate his party's position on them has dismayed the faithful. "We may get beat anyway," William Bennett has complained, "but I would much rather get beat on principles."

As a Democrat who believes that the Republicans' overreaching and self-destruction may cost them Congress as well as the White House this year, I would much rather win on principles.

I do not want the Democrats to win by default, without a real debate on the differences between the parties. I do not want them to win a backlash victory without deserving to win, without regaining long-term public confidence in their policies and leadership.

I do not share the cynical view that Clinton's campaign has abandoned his party's principles on every topic. He is right to occupy the middle of the spectrum abandoned by Dole and Gingrich. He is right to prefer legislative action to political debate on compromise measures that the nation cannot afford to leave in deadlock. He is right to restake earlier Democratic claims to territory seized by the Republicans on which they have no exclusive franchise _ such as upholding middle-class family values, expanding foreign markets, maintaining a strong defense and fighting inflation, terrorism, government waste and the influx of illegal immigrants and narcotics. Bipartisan congressional coalitions are desirable on foreign affairs whenever that is possible and necessary on domestic initiatives whenever they are urgent.

But there are limits that I trust our president and party will not exceed. Neither bipartisanship nor campaign tactics should blur those differences that make a difference: between fair and unfair, equitable and inequitable, right and wrong. Adopting Contract With America measures that emasculate educational, environmental and health protection for the middle class and poor, for example, could make the Democratic Party virtually invulnerable _ but also irrelevant.

So long as the Democrats remain a minority in Congress, genuine compromise is often their only practical means of keeping an essential program alive. So long as a Democratic president confronts a Republican Congress, compromise is often his only reasonable means of keeping the government moving. But compromise that damages human lives is unacceptable; compromise with fanatics on principles like religious liberty or racial justice is immoral; and compromise for the purpose of concealing fundamental differences is dishonest, and will never get the right-wing ideologues out of Washington.

Whatever their pollsters report, whatever their "handlers" advise, Democratic candidates are not free, morally, historically or politically, to turn their backs on "the little guy" _ the worker who is insecure about his job, health coverage or retirement, the family unable to afford a college education for children who won't get by without one, the elderly ill whose needs are not met by "free market competition," all those whose gender or color has denied them the training or job they seek, all those who are most vulnerable in our society. Nor can our party abandon the fate of those "ordinary" people to the whims of 50 state governments ill-equipped or unwilling to shoulder unpopular national obligations.

President Clinton and the Democrats do not need and should not seek the votes of every voter. To lead is to choose. To choose is to disappoint some and antagonize others. In its long history, the Democratic Party's finest hours have come when its leadership courageously appealed to the voters' consciences, not merely their interests.

Theodore C. Sorensen, who has practiced international law in New York since serving as special counsel to President John F. Kennedy, is the author of the newly published Why I Am a Democrat.

Special to the Los Angeles Times