WASHINGTON — AS THE Democratic Party staggers toward the 1992 presidential election year with no recognized star yet in the running, the lament continues that it doesn't even have an agenda with which to challenge the high-riding Republican incumbent.
The argument that President Bush is bringing the victorious troops home from the Persian Gulf to a domestic scene rife with neglect of pressing social needs is sharply hampered by the nation's huge debt squeeze that gives Bush an alibi for domestic inaction.
One old warhorse, George McGovern, is still saying he's considering the race but hopes "somebody else younger who hasn't picked up the scars I have" will run. He says he doesn't know enough about former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who is saying he might do it, to determine whether he fills the bill.
Tsongas, besides being relatively unknown -- he left the Senate after one term in 1984 and fought a winning battle with cancer, could suffer from surface similarities with another Massachusetts liberal of Greek descent, the GOP's favorite punching bag, Mike Dukakis. The fact that Tsongas by personality and style -- self-effacing and soft-spoken -- is much different from Dukakis would not stop the Republicans from making them sound like Siamese twins.
But Tsongas at least has brought forth the makings of a Democratic agenda that would have some chance of blunting the familiar Republican gambit of casting any Democratic candidate as a wild spender and advocate of bloated government.
In an 83-page treatise he is circulating called "A Call to Economic Arms: The New American Mandate," Tsongas challenges fellow Democrats as well as Republicans to stop throwing old shibboleths at each other -- Democrats broad-brushing the opposition as the captive of big business, Republicans painting the other party as the implacable foe of big business.
The core of his approach appears to be one earlier advocated by other independent-minded Democrats such as former Sens. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois and Gary Hart of Colorado and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California: the adoption of an "industrial policy" for the United States. That is, he proposes that the government become a partner with American industry in the world market, rather than have individual American businesses competing on their own for their slice of the pie.
Tsongas notes that while "industrial policy is seen as equivalent to child pornography" by many Republicans, and "the domain of such reprobates as Castro, the Sandinistas and the now-discredited communist planners," it has been the approach which Japan and Germany have been able to take American %% business to the cleaners in the foreign marketplace. "American companies need the United States government as a full partner if they are to have any hope of competing internationally," Tsongas argues.
Also, to enlarge the economic pie, he calls for restoration of the once-dominant American manufacturing base and preeminence in banking to pull the country out of its nose dive into lower-paying, unproductive service industries, generating higher corporate investment and individual savings to provide the means to address pressing social needs.
There is more than a little of the old John F. Kennedy "ask not what your country can do for you" gospel in Tsongas' preaching. He calls for cuts in the currently untouchable entitlement programs, arguing that "the principle of shared sacrifice for the common good must be advanced. This is the 'vision thing' that George Bush finds so hard to come to grips with."
AIt is a formula, he notes, that has worked impressively for Japan and Germany. As part of the sacrifice, Tsongas flatly calls for higher gas prices not only to raise money but to boost conservation to make the country less dependent on foreign oil.
Abroad, he proposes a "Marshall Plan II" by a coalition of American, West European and Pacific Rim countries, "not to contain communism but to keep it in its grave," while playing more economic hardball with the Japanese and Germans and a "Pax Mundi" rather than a "Pax Americana" to keep the peace, through the United Nations.
All this is a lot to chew on. It's not at all clear that the Democratic Party would buy into it, let alone voters who have been content with 30-second sound bites sweetened with Republican assurances that all is well, especially with U.S. prestige restored by military success abroad. But it is an agenda that can help the Democrats start thinking a bit more creatively about how to revive themselves.