NEW YORK - Prospective 2004 Democratic presidential candidates told the pro-business, pro-growth Democratic Leadership Council here yesterday that corporate corruption must be attacked, but not in a way that would brand the party as anti-business.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, one of five Democrats addressing the group, said that while "we New Democrats are proud to call ourselves pro-business, now we should make clear that the best way to help business is to come down hard on those who betray it."
Lieberman, the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, who has said he will seek the 2004 nomination only if former Vice President Al Gore does not, had questioned on Sunday Gore's use of "economic populism" rhetoric as sounding excessively anti-business. But yesterday, the senator had harsh words for corporate wrongdoers.
"Not content with a booming economy and a bullish market, a lot of powerful people turned into con artists and thieves to satisfy their personal greed," Lieberman said. "In the process, they broke our basic social contract. They forgot that in America, as we New Democrats had always said, with opportunities come responsibilities.
"Our capitalist system gives business the freedom to flourish and, in turn, produce wealth, jobs and better lives for the American people. But in return," Lieberman said, "we expect business executives to play by the rules and honor their word."
Lieberman and other speakers seized on the scandals in corporate America and the roller-coaster stock market to charge President Bush and his administration with squandering the prosperity of the Clinton-Gore years by giving free rein to corporate special interests.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota joined in the attack, while another 2004 hopeful, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, weighed in against Bush's conduct of the war on terrorism. Their assault on the Republican stewardship comes in advance of the November elections, which will determine control of Congress for the next two years.
Today, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who would become speaker if the Democrats succeed in recapturing the House, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, another presidential aspirant, are to join the criticisms in concluding the leadership council's annual meeting. Only Gore, among the most prominently mentioned possible 2004 candidates, is not attending.
Another leading Democrat, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, roused the more than 300 New Democrats with a response to Republican characterizations of the 1990s, when her husband was president, as an economic "binge."
Pointing to the creation of a federal budget surplus, 22.5 million new jobs, and sharp drops in crime and unemployment, the former first lady said, "The 1990s economic boom was not a fluke or a bubble." It resulted, she said, from DLC ideas for economic growth that have been abandoned by the Bush administration.
The day's speeches appeared to foreshadow the fall debate in the congressional elections, with Democrats urging voters to remember the economic well-being of the Clinton years and pledging to restore his policies. As the 2000 presidential nominee, Gore was accused by many Democrats of failing to make that case effectively, leading to a loss of the White House.
Though Clinton and other speakers called on colleagues to focus on positive Democratic ideas for change, it was clear yesterday that many leading party members intend to lay stock market woes at Republicans' feet. Clinton spoke of voters' fears of losing their retirement savings, saying they could "disappear in a blaze of corporate flameout" or see "irresponsible executives and board members ... take their money and run."
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, showed no reluctance to criticize the Bush administration's handling of the war on terrorism. He faulted tactics that failed to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and said Bush has not moved effectively to shore up information-gathering in U.S. intelligence agencies.
Clinton added, "It is not unpatriotic to ask hard questions about military engagement, and we will do that when it is appropriate."