Democrats Develop New Message on Economics

May 19, 1991|By PAUL WEST

Don't look now, but those brain-dead Democrats may be regaining consciousness.

According to conventional wisdom, the Democrats haven't a chance of winning the White House in the foreseeable future because their candidates have nothing to say to the average voter. The party's only strategy seems to be divine intervention: pray silently that some calamity will befall the Republican president before election day.

It's true that many Democrats are already looking for the miracle that will unseat George Bush next year, if their recent, somewhat excessive excitement over the president's health and the "Quayle factor" offer a clue. But others, not waiting for lightning to strike, are grappling with ideas that may finally spark a real debate.

For the first time in recent memory, a Democratic message is struggling to be born, one that may take the party beyond the stale discussions of the past. Much of the action centers around pocketbook concerns, the issues which most often decide presidential elections.

Already, Democratic hopefuls are zeroing in on the broad area where Mr. Bush appears weakest: economic growth.

That alone is a potentially significant departure. For a long time, Democrats have been concerned mainly with how the pie gets divided ("fairness"). The result has been a widespread, and politically damaging, perception that the Democratic Party exists mainly to take money out of the pockets of hard-working, middle-class Americans and give it to the poor and minorities.

But there are signs, even in the party's liberal wing, that Democrats are about to get serious about making the pie bigger, if only so that more than crumbs will be available for the government to pass around.

At the moment, the normally disputatious Democrats are united around a statistic: the decline in hourly wages during the 1980s. It's the old are-you-better-off-than-you-were question, with a twist. Most families are better off today than in 1980. But that's primarily because more women are working. And even with fatter paychecks, people feel squeezed.

Polls show that most Americans think the nation has gotten off on the wrong track. Health care costs continue to rise. The price of a college education is out of sight. And an increasing number of middle-aged parents have concluded, however reluctantly, that their children won't be markedly better off economically than they are.

Statistics about the middle-class squeeze are increasingly finding their way into Democratic rhetoric, and not only in speeches to blue-collar or working-class audiences.

"In the 1980s," Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton said in a recent speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, which he chairs, "middle income families' earnings declined for the first time in our memory. And not because they are lazy people. Working-class families put in more hours of work and less time with their children in 1989 than they did in 1979." The audience, made up largely of elected officials, wealthy donors and lobbyists, erupted into applause.

Just as important, today's Democrats are beginning to address the needs of ordinary Americans in new ways (new for Democrats, at least). In the 1980s, Republicans were the ones offering tax breaks to the middle class -- and reaping electoral gains in the process. But the only tax favor being dangled by Mr. Bush is a cut in the capital gains rate, which would directly benefit only wealthy taxpayers. Democrats, meantime, are leaping into the breach.

It appears that tax relief for the middle class will be a centerpiece of the 1992 Democratic message. New York Gov Mario M. Cuomo is a strong supporter of plans to cut Social Security payroll taxes. Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. is co-sponsoring a proposal that would provide a federal tax credit of $800 per child. Gov. Clinton favors increasing the earned income tax credit.

If Democrats stopped there, they could be fairly accused of simply copying the tax-cut platform that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980. But the '92 Democratic agenda also is likely to include initiatives for long-term growth. Unlike conservative Republicanism, the Democratic alternative involves giving government a greater role in rebuilding the economy.

Democrats will likely call for new "public investment" to strengthen the health and skills of U.S. workers, through better education and job training programs and reform of the medical care system. More federal spending for research and development is another likely agenda item. So is rebuilding America's "infrastructure," including existing roads and bridges or, in Mr. Gore's case, creating a vast new interstate fiber-optic network for supercomputers.

Where the money will come from isn't clear, though many of the likely candidates are on record in favor of higher taxes on upper-income Americans and further cuts in defense spending.

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