The Tsongas challenge: getting a hearing On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

May 16, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Washington

PAUL TSONGAS is a candidate with an idea for making a radical change in the Democratic Party -- an unusual although not unprecedented approach to running for president. The idea may even make some sense, which is even less usual although again is not without precedent.

But any judgment about the validity of Paul Tsongas' idea is premature. The first question is whether it can even get a hearing considering the way politics is played in America today.

The answer to that question is, of course, the key to whether Tsongas ever becomes a serious figure in the 1992 campaign.

Tsongas is not your garden variety candidate. His paper credentials are scant, two terms in the House and one in the

Senate. More to the point, he is soft-spoken and retiring in a business in which aggressive blather is most often rewarded. His candidacy rests almost entirely on this idea that the Democratic Party should view American business as a collaborator in energizing the national economy rather than as a hostile force in class warfare.

On his home ground in Massachusetts Tsongas enjoyed remarkable political success despite his unorthodox approach to politics. In 1978 he won a Democratic Senate primary against heavyweight opposition, then defeated the Republican incumbent, Edward Brooke, with a campaign that was positive, adult and restrained. But in the years since that campaign American politics has become a business in which the emphasis on negativism, sloganeering and the facility with which a candidate exploits the 13 seconds he is occasionally given on the television news.

Even before television had reached its present state of frenzied demand for the pithy sound bite, ideas that were even minimally complex have been difficult to communicate -- particularly when they could be translated into some shorthand summary. Thus, for example, in 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern advanced a complex plan for drastic changes in the welfare system that was soon characterized, because of one feature, as "the $1,000 Demogrant giveaway."

Similarly, in 1980 Rep. John B. Anderson, competing for the Republican presidential nomination before finally running as an independent, produced a plan for dealing with the energy crisis. It involved levying a tax of 50 cents a gallon but, critically, provided for refunds through the tax system so that taxpayers who needed to drive long distances to work would not be penalized. But it became known as "John Anderson's 50-cent gasoline tax" and was never even understood, let alone accepted by the electorate.

The problem for Tsongas is compounded by the fact he is so lightly regarded as a potential nominee that he gets even less attention for his ideas. In the early stages of the 1988 campaign former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona was in a similar position in recommending new thinking within the Democratic Party, including some use of means tests in entitlement programs. He also had the temerity to suggest two years before everyone could see it happening in Eastern Europe that the Cold War already had been won.

But Babbitt was a minor candidate without a forceful television manner, very much like Paul Tsongas. Although he attracted a core of devoted supporters with his ideas, he never became a serious enough competitor to capture enough sustained attention to explain himself.

Tsongas has only two possibilities for breaking through the voters' consciousness. The early tests -- the precinct caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire -- are conducted among such small universes of voters that they can be reached. By contrast, an early primary in California would be almost

entirely conducted in quick hits on television that would leave a Tsongas by the roadside.

There is always the chance there will be enough televised debates so that the ideas of a so-called second-tier candidate may get enough of a hearing that a few voters may decide he makes sense.

But it is an uphill course. The voters seem to reward the candidate who is televised, preferably standing before a body of water, promising "no new taxes" in a loud voice.

There may be sound reasons for rejecting Paul Tsongas. His conventional liberalism on such social issues as abortion and affirmative action may be crushing burdens. His idea of taking a fresh approach to the relationship between the Democratic Party and business may be all wet. But the first question is whether he ever manages to get a hearing.

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