Song of Tsongas

TRB

May 09, 1991|By TRB

WASHINGTON — [Our country] is greatness. . . . We must all be soldiers -- every one of us. . . . [Our country] needs our total devotion. . . . We need to create in ourselves the kind of steely will . . . that our Japanese and German counterparts still have. . . . Will, discipline, dedication, commitment, patriotism. . . .

To compete with societies with strong cultures requires an equally strong culture. . . . We are now being challenged by outside forces that seek to erode our standard of living [and] internal forces that are undermining the fabric of our social order. What would our ancestors have done?

Washington. -- Benito Mussolini? No, Paul Tsongas. I was as surprised as you are to find the mild-mannered, sad-faced former senator from Massachusetts -- the only declared Democratic candidate for president -- sounding like a strutting fascist. When I started to read Mr. Tsongas's 85-page ''Call to Economic Arms,'' I was expecting dismal techno-liberal babble about superconductors and such. And there is some of that. But as he reaches beyond sub-Sorensenian ask-nottery toward Churchillian wartime eloquence, he often overshoots the mark and ends up in Italy, circa 1925. Many of Senator Tsongas's policy proposals as well have a fascist, or at least a corporate-statist, flavor, involving a symbiotic alliance between business and government.

Good for Paul Tsongas. First, for having the guts to run while better-known Democrats duck the fight. Second, for genuinely running on a set of specific ideas (unlike Gary Hart, who ran on the idea of ideas). Third, for evidently coming up with his ideas himself. Can you imagine George Bush knowing enough about what he thinks to sit down and produce a philosophically coherent 85-page policy agenda?

Mr. Tsongas's paper deserves to be taken seriously, not just out of courtesy to a serious candidate but because he sketches a course other Democratic candidates will find tempting. An emphasis on activist government combined with economic growth. Techno-glitzy and futurish. Seemingly bold without actually being dangerous.

Senator Tsongas styles himself a ''pro-business liberal.'' This is in ostensible contrast to traditional Democrats who are ''instinctively hostile to business interests,'' concentrating on the distribution of wealth without a thought for wealth-creation; and in contrast to Republicans, who suffer from ''an almost religious belief [in] an unfettered free market,'' which is outmoded because Adam Smith never saw a microchip.

In reality, these are both straw men. The Democrats are far from hostile to business -- look where their money comes from, who their leaders play golf with. And most Republicans are far from principled believers in the free market. As a result, the law books and tax code are littered with favors to various business interests. If the occasional Democrat worries about the distributional effects, or if the occasional Republican gets his free-market back up, that's admirable. But there's little need to worry that this happens too often.

There's a difference between being pro-business and being pro-capitalist. Most business people are happy to accept government handouts, protections and special tax breaks. Mr. Tsongas is eager to supply more of these. But he cannot explain convincingly why the government knows better than the market which companies ought to thrive, which investments ought to be encouraged, how long an executive's ''time horizons'' ought to be.

Then there's ''economic loyalty.'' If you sent $100 to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Senator Tsongas observes, you would be vilified as a traitor, but if you send $40,000 to Japan or Germany to aid them in their ''economic war effort against us'' you are congratulated on your new Mercedes or Lexus. Mr. Tsongas insists he does not advocate counterproductive ''Buy America'' policies. But if he doesn't mean that, it's unclear what he does mean. If American cars are the best, there is no need to call on patriotism for people to buy them. If they are not the best, it is pathetic and protectionist to insist that Americans buy them anyway.

For all his alarm about the lack of saving and investment, Mr. Tsongas has little to say about the largest source of social dissaving, the federal budget deficit -- which his myriad subsidy and tax-break proposals would only enlarge. As a ''pro-business'' fellow, he does not suggest a tax increase. As for spending cuts, he can only bring himself to suggest ''looking at'' middle-class entitlement programs, the necessary focus of any serious budget reform.

When one side is calling for a capital-gains tax cut and the other side is denouncing this as more pointless bounty for the rich, it may be tempting to stake out a statesmanlike middle position and call for a capital-gains tax cut for investments in ''appropriate securities held for a long period of time.'' But that temptation should be resisted. And not just because such a tax cut is still a bad idea. But because the Democrats will not revive themselves by proclaiming that they're just like the opposition, only less so. Mr. Tsongas, despite his best rhetorical efforts, cannot disguise the fact that he is ill-suited to horseback. Senator, you're no Benito Mussolini.

*TRB wrote this commentary for The New Republic.

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