Paul Tsongas is a former Democratic presidential candidate and senator from Massachusetts. Along with former Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, he founded and is co-chairman of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan grass-roots group that wants to eliminate the national debt. Among the steps it advocates is reducing entitlement programs, such as Social Security, which it would ''means test,'' cutting back benefits to senior citizens who earn more than $40,000 in other income.
A recent paper distributed by Mr. Tsongas argues that there is an opportunity for a third party to occupy the ''vacuum'' in the center of the American political spectrum. The new party would appeal to the many Americans who are uneasy about the social views of the Republicans and the fiscal views of the Democrats, Tsongas says.
The Monitor's editorial board talked with Tsongas at its Boston office last week. Below are edited highlights:
You've said you can no longer back Bill Clinton in the 1996 election. Why?
We were told that post Kerrey-Danforth [a bipartisan congressional committee that examined entitlement reforms] he would take the moral high ground against the Republicans. Instead, he took Social Security off the table the week before the election by raising it as a campaign theme against the Republicans. And then [he made his] speech on the middle-class tax cuts and the commitment to more defense spending.
Then you have [House Speaker Newt Gingrich] doing the same thing. More defense spending, more tax cuts no Social Security [reform]. It's a clash of the pander bears. I think there's an opportunity for someone to move into this vacuum. It could be [Democratic Sen.] Bob Kerrey [of Nebraska] challenging [Clinton], it could be Clinton stepping down and [Vice President] Al Gore [Jr.] taking over, it could be a sort of ''new Bob Dole,'' recognizing where the vacuum is.
Or it could be a third party.
Was it a mistake for Clinton to try to pass health-care reform?
If you go back to the original managed competition model, which was private-sector-based, nonregulatory, no new entitlements, I think there would have been support for it. What happened was they loaded all this stuff on to win constituencies: 55-year-old early retirees, long-term care, pharmaceuticals for the elderly.
[The White House] destroyed the consensus for health-care reform by what they introduced.
Does the ''Contract With America'' make good fiscal sense?
Well, the line-item veto is important. Governors have it, and it works. It gives you presidential power.
A smaller Congress [with fewer committees is good]. I would get there at 10 o'clock in the morning and [it was] 10 o'clock for this committee, 10 o'clock for that committee, 10 o'clock for another committee. There's only one of me to go to three committees! I think there's a lot of support even within the Congress for those kinds of changes.
Where the Republicans get into a dilemma is tax cuts, more defense, no entitlement reforms -- the fact that [these are] contradictory and that they're not embarrassed by it.
Do we need more defense spending?
When the American people hear that we are spending more on defense than the rest of the world put together, they are surprised. Once they hear it, they're not open to the argument that we ought to spend more.
Polls show a lot of people want a third party. Why not start now?
Because its legitimacy is seen as enhanced if it is seen as post-failure of the two major parties. And you have to give the Republicans a certain honeymoon. They have a right to say, ''Hey, we won. And we haven't run this thing for a long time. Give us space.''
Why do you think Gen. Colin Powell is the perfect third-party candidate?
I think Colin Powell transcends party -- and race. What Powell gives you because he's black, he's been forced to think about things that most people have never had to deal with. It is the process of contemplating all of that that gives him a dimension. So when he gets up and talks about ''have we no shame?'' -- the moral breakdown of society -- for some reason he can do that and you don't laugh. You think to yourself, ''He really means this.''
We've noticed you speak a lot about the need for moral values.
It is my view that people who have inside of them a sense of their own culture and a sense of spirituality are advantaged. What has happened in this country is that we've shied away -- particularly Democrats -- from acknowledging that. To speak about a God is not what Democrats do. We're not comfortable. And so we leave it to the Oliver Norths. There is a hollowness, an emptiness to what we bombard our kids with. The notion of instant gratification. The constant bombardment of sexual innuendo. You end up with a country approaching a 40 percent illegitimacy rate.
What steps can government take to help lift the moral tone?
School prayer is not one of them. School prayer is the way for a Jewish student to feel inappropriate when they do the Lord's Prayer.
But I think the idea of a moment of silence, that you acknowledge a Higher Being, in whatever way that you wish -- then you give legitimacy to the instinct to be spiritual. As opposed to make it seem nerdy or inappropriate or uncool, or something you do when you're off by yourself.
Certainly the unabashed spirituality of the Founding Fathers never seemed inappropriate.
Is anyone paying attention to cutting entitlements to get the budget in balance? Is anyone listening?
I think the country is ready. If you appeal to people in terms of their generational responsibility, you will move them.
It looks like some kind of tax cut is going through in Congress. Is that a political mistake?
I don't think it will [pass].
I mean your profession had a field day [with Clinton's tax-cut speech]. ''Clinton Plays Santa Claus.''
What would you tell Warren Rudman if he were offered the head job at the Central Intelligence Agency?
If you asked Warren what he would like to be, it would be Secretary of Defense under President Bob Dole.
As part of your third-party platform, you mention the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Nuclear terrorism is the foreign-policy threat. It is somebody who has access to a nuclear weapon who has a hatred. This idea of leaving behind all these people who have a hatred of the United States because we have indifference to their plight will inevitably lead to one of them pulling it off.
The notion that you can have a foreign policy that is mortality-free is an illusion. The notion that you can be safe because there is an Atlantic and a Pacific Ocean is also an illusion in a nuclear age. We have all this nuclear weaponry floating around in black-market circumstances.