Form vs. Substance

THE president promises to put James Baker III in charge of economic policy, if reelected, and to sweep the decks of current economic advisers. Is this a real commitment to change or a desperate, 11th-hour political ploy?

Mr. Baker's designation as so-called "economic czar" is intended to underline Mr. Bush's determination to put domestic matters first during a second term. Some voters may recall, however, that Baker has been at the heart of domestic affairs before, as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and Treasury secretary. Those years saw economic growth, but also mounting deficits and a falling dollar.

The current economic team - Office of Management and Budget head Richard Darman, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, and chief economics adviser Michael Boskin - is associated, especially by conservative Republicans, with such moves as the 1990 budget compromise and tax hike. Hence word of their departure helps shore up the president's political base as well as suggest a new era is at hand.

What voters need, however, is a clearer explanation of the president's "new agenda for American renewal." Bush made public this plan with considerable fanfare, back on Sept. 8. Since then it's been subordinated to attacks on Bill Clinton's integrity.

How about a little more detail on how we're to reach a $10 trillion economy by early in the next century, as the "agenda" proposes? How does a 1 percent across-the-board tax cut figure in this vision? Is free trade the primary economic engine relied on by the president?

Baker attempted to lay out these issues for Bush this week. But voters would surely like to hear the president's defense of his own plan. We hope both the president and Governor Clinton take the opportunity tonight and in Monday's debate to shed some light on our economic future.

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