Tsongas perks business ears


March 04, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

After lunch at the Center Club, a fellow in polished shoes and French cuffs said, "This guy Tsongas has really struck a chord with the business crowd. I heard it at lunch. And the ones who were talking about him voted for Bush last time."

Watch out. The captains of commerce like Paul Tsongas, a dweeby liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. What's wrong with this picture?

Though it's difficult to believe that the captains of commerce would consider sending a Democrat to the White House, it's not difficult to believe that Paul Tsongas' "pro-business" message is getting through to these chaps. They hear the phrase, "pro-business," and they perk their ears like foxes outside a chicken ranch.

If the report from the Center Club is true, then why? What's all the excitement for this thoroughly unexciting former senator with a name the governor of Maryland can't pronounce?

"There's a lot of interest in Tsongas because there are a lot of moderates out there who have been frustrated that, up till now, the [Democratic] party has not been able to to come up with anything that made sense," says Jim Brady, managing partner at Arthur Andersen & Co., the downtown accounting firm.

There are still plenty of Democrats who own businesses in Maryland. There are, in fact, a lot of wealthy Democrats. However, they have rejected Democratic policies for more than a decade and haven't heard a presidential candidate clearly articulate an economic agenda that positions the country for global competition.

Generally described, this group is white, male, middle-aged and moderate to conservative in political philosophy. They own and/or operate small businesses, service companies or light industry in Maryland. A lot of them grew up in the Baltimore area in Democratic households. Their parents supported FDR and the New Deal. They came of age during the election of John F. Kennedy. They supported Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Hubert Humphrey in 1968. They might have gone with George McGovern in 1972, if only as a last fling with youthful idealism. They supported Jimmy Carter but quickly rejected him. They voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

This group is key if the Democrats are to return to the White House. The other group consists of working people who marched into the voting precincts in 1980 to throw Jimmy Carter out of office. They voted for Reagan twice and Bush once. Just six months ago, they were primed to vote for Bush again.

Now they are not so sure. The recession is the main reason why Bush's re-election is not a certainty, but it's not the only reason. People have wised up.

They realize that someone has to take the long view on economic recovery. Ronald Reagan didn't challenge the nation to brace for a new role in a changing world. He only asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Bush can't get out of the bean-counter mentality of quarterly earnings and a belief that resurgence is based on the number of socks they sell at J.C. Penney.

Into this atmosphere steps Paul Tsongas, a "pro-business liberal" who says a nation can be economically and socially progressive at the same time.

"He cares and he has a sensible plan. He accomplishes something I don't believe a Democratic candidate has done for a long time," says Brady. "Democrats have not been able to convince voters that they have a clear [economic] plan. . . . Tsongas blends the pragmatic realities with the principles of our country. He knows that we need to rebuild the economy, to make people feel they are part of it, and that we can't address human needs until we get the economy moving again."

The huge budget deficits; the outrageous and unnecessary expenditures on defense; the withdrawal of federal support for urban revival; the relaxation of regulations on savings and loans and banks, and industrial safety; the concentration of wealth combined with the growth of the working poor and the shrinking of the middle class; a general indifference about the environment; the stacking of the Supreme Court with right-wing ideologues; racial divisiveness -- that's the dismal record of the Reagan-Bush years.

Americans who have roots in the traditions of the Democratic Party, but who gave up on it as the voice of opportunity and economic advancement, would like to come home again. They have wanted to come home for a long time. That's why they like Tsongas.

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