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Who'll Grab the Pro-Growth Issue?

By Paul R. WieckPaul R. Wieck is a Washington-based reporter working on "The Unmaking of a Party," a book about the Democrats. / December 9, 1991



PRESIDENT George Bush confessed to reporters in the midst of the fierce budget battle in the fall of 1990 that his domestic duties don't turn him on like building an international alliance does. But few then guessed that his reluctance to push a domestic agenda would give the Democrats a shot at making off with the GOP's image as the party that offers strong economic growth and the jobs and opportunities that go with it.Mr. Bush had already given up ground on the domestic scene by signaling that taxes would be on the table at the 1990 budget summit, but the economy wasn't a problem. Now a year has gone by, the economy is troubled, and polls show Bush's handling of it is making voters very nervous. As a result, the pro-growth issue - the key to building a political majority in this country - is up for grabs. Bush's fumbling on this issue has reopened old wounds in the GOP. True believers in the Reagan revolution are questioning, often publicly, the depth of Bush's commitment to the Reagan "supply side" formula for stimulating growth - cut taxes and stop regulating businesses. One Bush backer who's worried is Eddie Mahe, a political consultant with close ties to "supply-siders" like Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp and House minority leader Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. Both Mr. Kemp and Mr. Gingrich are critics of Bush's failure to fashion and push hard for a package of tax cuts and job-creating programs. To Mr. Mahe, Bush's reluctance to move decisively on the domestic front points up a side of the president that worries him. It's what he calls Bush's instinct toward the "old money" way of handling the economy - the "status quo" approach that dominated party thinking back in the '50s when Republicans spoke for the "haves" and scarcely noticed the needs of the "have nots." There are reasons for Mahe's concern. Bush's advisers tend, like him, to be from the "old money" school of politics - Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady, Office of Management and Budget director Richard Darman, and Michael Boskin, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. They told Bush to keep his new domestic agenda under wraps until February's State of the Union address. By then, they hope, things will look better. The result, Mahe says, is that Bush resists "everything the growth-oriented people propose. They're out of the room when decisions are made." Though it's typical of the "old money" way of handling things, it doesn't play well in an era of impatient, media-driven politics. Bush's fumbling on the crucial growth issue left an opening for columnist and media star Patrick Buchanan to consider a challenge to Bush in New Hampshire, a state where the severity of the recession has left the president vulnerable. The question is whether the Democrats will come up with a candidate who can take the growth issue away from Bush. Our history tells us pro-growth politics has many faces. Thomas Jefferson put it in terms of westward expansion and debunking the royalist tendencies of his political opponents. Abraham Lincoln backed working-class demands that the extension of slavery be stopped, land be made available for homesteading by free men, and the first transcontinental railroad be built. Franklin Roosevelt turned to public works programs, the beginnings of a social contract that included Social Security, and, in the end, a war economy. Each used his issues to pull together a new majority, just as Reagan was using his pro-growth policies to realign our parties. But none provide an exact model for Democrats in 1992. The GOP image of being the party of jobs and opportunity is rooted in the 1981 tax cut, which shaved 25 percent off income taxes. True believers in the "supply side" doctrine say it set off a wave of consumer buying and business expansion that created 20 million new jobs and kept the economy humming until 1990. Bush wrapped himself in his "no new taxes" pledge in 1988 but broke that pledge in 1990. Today, the buying spree is over, businesses are disappearing, the economy is, at best, sluggish. There are cries in both parties for a domestic package to stimulate it. Despite the confusion in GOP ranks as the holiday season approaches, the tax issue is unquestionably alive and well and still works for Republicans on election day. Voters in New Jersey signaled as much by cleaning out the Democratic-controlled legislature last month. Bush's problems aren't a solution for the Democrats. They only open the door a crack. To compete for the pro-growth vote, the Democrats need the kind of face lift that will make them attractive to the middle-class swing vote, which tends to be males under 40. They're professional men, entrepreneurs, or in college. They don't like taxes, and they shy away from the cultural conservatives. Most Democrats saw them in the '80s as a source of tax dollars to fund social programs pushed by their special interest groups. Today, this segment of the middle class is threatened. It's caught up in a white-collar recession that has put a lot of people out on the street. Costs of health care and of college for their children are soaring and nothing is being done about it, either by the White House or Congress. They feel vulnerable. Current Democratic thinking says middle-class voters can be bought off with a minimum of tax cuts and a promise of relief in health and education costs. But that's low-balling the problems of the middle class. Yet, to go any further will subject any Democratic candidate to the charge he's a pale imitation of Bush, especially in the black community where a heavy turnout is a must if Bush is to be defeated. The face lift the Democrats need is a candidate who sounds like a real change, both from what the country has now and what the Democratic Party has offered in the past. Is there one in their field? Not at the moment. The candidates are sorting themselves out in predictable ways. On one hand there's the harsh, populist rhetoric of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. He hopes to capture the party's liberal activists, the key to past victories. Harkin could set the mood but lose to the rhetorical skills of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. That would please GOP strategists. They don't fear a candidate with an eastern urban image. Mahe says, "Cuomo is the one candidate we can beat in a bad economy. It's hard to see him winning. There are chunks of the country where no one is named Mario." The pro-growth solution is the theme of three Democrats - governors Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Douglas Wilder of Virginia, and former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Clinton is the one GOP leaders are watching. He speaks up for old-fashioned values like the work ethic and criticizes Republicans for favoring the rich. Like all the candidates, he's for spending on public works but against past "tax and spend" policies of his party. The crisp style of Nebraska Sen. Robert Kerrey sounds and looks like change, but the tired, anti-political rhetoric of California's Jerry Brown doesn't. By letting the country know he's bored by domestic problems and would rather spend his time building a new world order, Bush has given the Democrats their chance to put together a new majority around the pro-growth issues of jobs and less taxes. It remains to be seen whether the party is ready for the face lift it needs to pull this off. Luckily for them, they have nearly a year to work on it.

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