America Inc.

December 31, 1991

Ever pliable, ever pragmatic -- now even partly protectionist in pursuit of political points -- President Bush is off on a 12-day trip to Asia in which his White House re-election hopes have replaced Pacific security concerns as the major focus.

It is a most curious spectacle, what with 21 corporate executives in tow. Collectively, they seek higher profits, not high public office, and if Mr. Bush can "break open" foreign markets for their products they will not object.

Never before, according to Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher (soon to be general manager of the Bush campaign) has a president taken a group of business leaders on this sort of a mission. "It sends a message," he proclaims, "that the government and the business community are together on this for the first time."

Yes, that's one message. But another is that the Bush entourage is engaging in a pathetic, perhaps comic, imitation of Japan Inc. For years, Americans have lamented the close interlock between Japanese big government and Japanese big business under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). Even as Japan began to outstrip the United States in the marketing of products (such as cars and electronics) that were once considered an American preserve, Yankee Doodles Dandy vowed they wanted no America Inc. on this side of the Pacific. It smacked too much of collectivism, of corporate statism, of government interference. Maybe Democrats might cotton to this form of creeping industrial policy; not Republicans!

Perhaps sensing the danger, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater allowed the other day that he didn't believe "the Japanese or anyone will mistake any individual businessman's views for those of the United States government."

Oh, really? Tell that to Mr. Mosbacher! Just what are Mr. Bush and his fellow travelers "together on" if it isn't a tougher trade policy? Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca will hardly be earning his $4.65 million salary if he is just along on a jawboning exercise in which his Japanese hosts will bow and smile and then run up another record-high trade surplus. The president's goal is not just "free trade," heretofore a treasured Bush catch-phrase, but "fair trade," a euphemism for protectionism much favored by Japan-bashing Democrats.

Not for the first time, the Democrats are about to witness an attempt by Mr. Bush to steal one of their campaign issues. It follows on the president's sudden interest in "a middle-class tax cut," a proposal Democrats thought they had patented. Another example: Sen. Bob Kerrey said in the initial presidential debate that his first, second and third priorities were "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs." Now Mr. Bush is off to Asia chanting the identical litany.

Some might wish Mr. Bush would stick by his alleged convictions by fighting protectionism and anything even hinting of America Inc. But that is not this president's style. Principles are for guys who lose elections.

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