WASHINGTON — PAUL TSONGAS drives a Plymouth Acclaim, his wife owns a Jeep, and his campaign vehicle is a Chevrolet Lumina. All are American-made. He says it is time for every American to demonstrate ``economic loyalty'' to the United States. Mr. Tsongas, who today launches his Democratic campaign for the White House, observes: ``Many of those who lament the decline in our standard of living are driving foreign cars.'' He warns: When Americans buy foreign products, they ``benefit another country's team,'' and America loses.
Tsongas, a former United States senator from Massachusetts, compares himself to a modern-day Paul Revere. He is galloping across the country, warning of a catastrophic economic threat that is destroying America's renowned standard of living.
Tsongas blames George Bush for proclaiming it is ``morning in America'' even as the nation's economy sinks into second-rate status. But he also blames Americans themselves, the ``me generation'' of self-centered consumers who put personal gratification ahead of loyalty to one's fellow citizens.
``We are all part of one team,'' he says. ``We are tied to the success ... of all the other members of our team.''
Germans see nothing wrong with loyalty to German products, he says. Japanese support Japanese products. ``But we think we are too sophisticated to be that kind of a nation. We see that as unseemly,'' he said in a telephone interview.
Tsongas has compiled his ideas into a booklet, ``A Call to Economic Arms: The New American Mandate.'' In it, he observes:
``Today an American professor ... is paid less than her German counterpart teaching the same subject matter.... Since the skills are equivalent, why are the salaries different? Very simple. The German `team' is doing very well, the American `team' less well.''
Tsongas concedes that for many Americans, this is unaccustomed logic. He laughingly notes that he even has trouble with his own staff. ``Invariably when they come to pick me up, they're driving a foreign car. So we have to drive my own car.''
Beginning today, Tsongas carries his ``call to economic arms'' to New Hampshire and Iowa. Later this week he will take his message to Colorado, California, Washington, and Florida.
When Tsongas served in the Senate during the early 1980s, he was widely admired by many businessmen for his policies to invigorate American industry. He hopes to pick up support from that same quarter now. But the former senator flatly rejects the laissez-faire outlook of the Bush White House toward the competitive crisis in American industry.
``America's manufacturing base is under attack, and Washington treats it as just another issue,'' he says.
``It is not just another issue. It is the issue. This problem is our collective kryptonite. An ever-less-competitive manufacturing base inevitably means cataclysmic erosion of our standard of living.''
Tsongas quotes a recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which says: ``In order to live well, a country must produce well.'' That slogan ``should sit on the president's desk,'' he says.
Tsongas accuses Mr. Bush of misleading the American people, as in his January state of the Union speech when he stated:
``If the playing field is level, America's workers and farmers can outwork, outproduce anyone, anytime, anywhere.''
But the playing field isn't level, and Bush fails to admit it, Tsongas charges.
``What we have today is a naive faith that our companies can compete without any public sector help,'' he says. But ``foreign companies [are] linked to governments with resolute industrial policies. Our companies are going forth to do one-on-one battle and are being mugged.''
Tsongas urges Washington to move quickly on several fronts:
First, recognize the peril. ``We are losing ground, particularly in high technology, basic manufacturing, and financial services.''
Second, make strategic investments. That will require government spending in technologies like ceramic engines, supercomputers, and memory chips.
Third, promote science and research. ``The economic war we are losing is centered on process technologies.'' America is still great at inventing things, but weak at manufacturing them.
Fourth, change antitrust laws. ``We need to pool our resources to be equal with our competition.''
Fifth, increase our savings rate. While US savings rates fell during the 1980s, rates rose in both Japan and Germany to about twice US levels.
Sixth, favor investment over consumption. ``Relative to our competitors, we are devoted to consumption, and they are devoted to investment.''
Seventh, change capital-gains taxes. ``We need to limit capital-gains incentives to long-term investments in corporate America.''
Eighth, provide research and development tax credits. ``We can't compete long-term if we are not putting our earnings back into research and development.''
Ninth, change short-term US corporate perspectives. ``All of the forces in the marketplace reward the shortsighted and penalize the wise.''
Tenth, improve labor-management attitudes. Both must work together, but ``too many old bulls'' still occupy board rooms.
``This campaign is based on economics,'' Tsongas says. ``I care about other issues like education and environment and women, but that is not what got me into this race.''