Maryland Democrats can play a pivotal role in the selection of their party's presidential nominee this year if, but only if, they vote for former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts. Seeking preeminence for our state is hardly justification for so important a decision. But when the chance to make a difference nationally coincides with a decided preference for one candidate -- and The Sun has such a preference for Mr. Tsongas -- then a strong endorsement is in order.
Mr. Tsongas brings to the campaign a refreshing zest for hard truths and realism, a merited contempt for political packaging or straddling and a tough willingness to challenge the kind of Democratic orthodoxy that has led his party to defeat after defeat. A candidate who dares to label the election-year middle-class tax cuts offered by the Democratic congressional leadership as "immoral" and "pandering" and "class warfare" is a candidate worthy of admiration.
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It would be gratifying if President Bush had taken a similarly principled position. Instead he proposed a middle-class tax cut of meaningless dimensions in his State of the Union address, then pulled it out of a pared-down package sent to Capitol Hill and at present finds himself pilloried, deservedly, on all sides.
This, unfortunately, is all too characteristic of Mr. Bush's behavior in dealing with domestic issues. The president thus leaves himself open to attack from the atavistic Republican right, represented in this instance by TV shout-down commentator Patrick Buchanan.
The Sun regrets Mr. Bush's fall from favor, not least because it parallels a downslide in the economy largely brought on by Ronald Reagan's massive spend-and-borrow policies -- policies that have left individuals, corporations and federal, state and local governments mired in debt. When he first ran for office, Mr. Bush correctly castigated such policies as "voodoo economics." But as vice president, he had to loyally support Reaganomics and when he ascended to the White House he was stuck. His efforts to wiggle away incrementally have created a somewhat unfair perception of passivity in the face of the nation's economic troubles.
Only a year ago, President Bush was the triumphant commander-in-chief of a magnificently crafted international coalition that turned back Iraq's seizure of Kuwait. It is fashionable to complain, in retrospect, that this involvement symbolized Mr. Bush's preoccupation with foreign affairs and his so-called neglect of domestic matters. We reject this construct. A president's first duty is to the security of the United States, and if there is one thing that gives us pause about Mr. Tsongas (and every one of his Democratic rivals) it is a lack of expertise on the international front. Mr. Bush deserves high grades for pushing Middle East peace talks, liberalized trade negotiations, restructuring of the armed forces and a cautious but constructive U.S. role toward the former Soviet Union.
The Sun has no problem in endorsing Mr. Bush over the unacceptable Mr. Buchanan. But we recognize he is in a Hoover-like predicament that can lead to his defeat or, worse for the country, a crippled second term. Unless. Unless he demonstrates he stands for a vision of the American future that will energize and inspire his fellow citizens. We urge all Maryland Republicans to vote for the president. His opponent is unworthy.
In the more complicated Democratic race, Mr. Tsongas faces formidable opposition: Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, a major force in the Democratic Leadership Council, a group that has pointed the party in a more moderate, mainstream direction; Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, an unabashed New Dealer with strong personal convictions who appeals to a traditional liberal-labor-minorities constituency, and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam Congressional Medal of Honor winner with a mixed-bag of issues featuring a comprehensive health-care plan. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, with his eccentric politics, is also on the ballot.
The Sun prefers Senator Tsongas both on the basis of character and on the basis of policy. He is a man without pretension who speaks his mind plainly and to the point, regardless of political fallout. He has fought and won, at least for the moment, a long bout with cancer -- an experience that has forced him to come to grips with elemental home truths and gives him a rare kind of courage.
Mr. Tsongas departs from Democratic orthodoxy in describing himself as a "pro-business liberal" who believes in government-corporate cooperation to produce the kind of jobs America needs. This makes him an advocate of an industrial policy that differentiates him from free-market purists of Republican persuasion. He also rejects forthrightly the Democratic Party's deplorable turn toward protectionism and Japan-bashing. All in all, it is a more conservative approach that could attract middle-of-the-road voters in a close campaign.
Maryland's primary election Tuesday is critical to Mr. Tsongas because he simply has to win here to offset his disappointing tie in the Maine caucuses and his fourth-place finish in South Dakota. To do so, he will have to overcome the opposition of the party establishment, which signed on early with Governor Clinton, and of organized labor, with its links to Senator Harkin. He has, however, made a profound impression on respected political leaders, some of whom are keeping their thoughts private, and on thousands of Maryland citizens who eagerly seek a president with special personal qualities and ideas.
The Sun considers Paul Tsongas someone special. We endorse him in Tuesday's primary.