Presidential Choices

October 18, 1992

Maryland Democrats are not to blame. In the primary las March, they voted for former Sen. Paul Tsongas, the only major-party presidential hopeful with a real plan to combat federal deficits eroding the well-being and security of this country. Mr. Tsongas, alas, was a poor speaker and an inept political organizer. He gave way all too soon to the stubborn ambitions and negative advertising of Gov. Bill Clinton, currently a strong favorite to defeat President Bush in the Nov. 3 election.

Technically, this is a three-man race now that independent H. Ross Perot is spending some of his many millions as a self-financed candidate for the nation's highest office. In comparison to his Republican and Democratic opponents, Mr. Perot has by far the most convincing program for dealing with the threat of national bankruptcy. But he cannot win. His contribution to this campaign, much like that of Mr. Tsongas, is to prepare Americans for tough sacrifices in the years just ahead.

Neither the Republican incumbent nor his Democratic challenger has been willing to discuss candidly what must be done about a runaway national debt that condemns the nation to high long-term interest rates and a stagnant economy. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton have adhered to the old political theory that during a campaign you dispense sugar. Both have offered economic programs that purport to deal with the deficit crisis. But neither of these programs stands up under scrutiny. If literally implemented they would leave the U.S. on a course that undercuts its world position and makes the dollar vulnerable to free-fall at the whim of foreign markets.

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Perhaps sheer momentum and high tech weaponry would allow this country to keep playing the costly role of sole military superpower. But export and economic superpower would lie elsewhere, and the United States could find itself relegated to second-class status. This doomsday scenario is disputed, to be sure, by supply-siders on the right and big spenders on the left who belittle the importance of deficits and spin dreams of continuing American greatness almost as a matter of destiny. Such theories offer convenient cover for the blandishments of Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton. But the message from Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Perot is that the American people should not gamble away the future of their children and grandchildren on such pap.

If their warnings are to be taken seriously, then voters should ask themselves a difficult question as they make their presidential choices: Which candidate -- President Bush or Governor Clinton -- has left himself the most options and alternatives to attack the debt crisis? This should be the crucial test. It reduces all the personal charges flying back and forth to so much campaign malarkey. Americans have to decide who can best manage a successful presidency. And a successful presidency will hinge on the degree to which deficits can be brought under control.

President Bush finds himself hobbled and haunted by his 1988 pledge to "Read my lips; no new taxes." Not only did he have to renege on this pledge in the 1990 budget agreement, thus losing credibility among those who took him at his word, but he has also compounded his difficulties by insisting he will not raise taxes in a second term. This is irresponsible. If the debt explosion is to be constrained, increased revenues dedicated to deficit reduction will have to be a big part of the solution.

Mr. Clinton, for his part, has played the populist by warning that Mr. Bush is out to gut mandatory entitlement benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans assistance and farm subsidies. This is a classic scare tactic in the Democratic Party repertoire. But it has special relevance this year because the next president, whoever he will be, will have to reduce the growth of entitlements rising ever higher on automatic pilot. Mr. Clinton must know this, but he won't talk about it. Instead, he hides behind talk about controlling health-care costs, a huge component of the budget problem, without saying how he will pay for his reforms.

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Since neither candidate will level with the American people, voters are left with the unpleasant task of deciding which candidate is clever enough, equivocal enough and manipulative enough to run a campaign that can be largely disregarded once he takes his oath next January.

By this negative and not very admirable standard, Mr. Clinton may have the edge. He "is a master of the circuitous solution to problems, of the pleasing if ambiguous answer to difficult questions," which was the description Truman biographer David McCullough applied to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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