Shaping the 1988 debate

THIS week's Kemp-Gephardt debate in Des Moines was not exactly a replay of one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 - but it was first-rate political give-and-take. Lincoln-Douglas argued a pivotal issue in United States history: how to ensure American union in a nation half free and half slave. The Kemp-Gephardt debate dealt with a less desperate but still instructive issue for voters turning toward the 1988 presidential election: how the United States can promote continued domestic productivity and global commerce in a world that espouses growing protectionism as much as free trade.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri argues that one answer is to take tough action against trading partners that keep out US goods and services, particularly Japan. Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York argues that the type of protectionism called for by Mr. Gephardt would ``ignite a worldwide trade war'' in which Americans, including Iowans, would be the very first casualties.

This is hardly the moment for assessing who ``won'' in Iowa, Mr. Kemp or Mr. Gephardt. Iowans will have something to say about that later. But Kemp noted, correctly, that the US has created millions of new jobs in recent years - some 13.5 million, by his reckoning. Gephardt noted, equally correctly, that millions of those jobs are in lower-paying service positions - not factory jobs.

It would be unfortunate if the 1988 election produced a polarization on economic issues - and that certainly need not occur. Indeed, for all their apparent dissimilarities, most of the announced Republican and Democratic candidates for 1988 are not all that far apart on issues. Gephardt, for example, has been involved in an ongoing dispute about trade with Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, since rival Democrat Dukakis, not totally unlike Kemp on this particular point, is critical of a strong protectionist push. And Kemp sought to portray Gephardt as an unbridled protectionist. Yet, the White House, for all its commitment to free trade, has been quick to adopt numerous market-sharing or other restrictive trade agreements - in effect, protectionist agreements not totally unlike agreements sought by Gephardt.

The economy should be a major issue in 1988. Granted, the current recovery has been impressive, with a momentary relatively low unemployment rate and undisputed new job creation. All the same, the recovery masks major problems: high budget and trade deficits, loss of manufacturing jobs, a possible resurgence of inflation, and a middle class that - if not ``disappearing,'' as Gephardt argues - is at least struggling to maintain its economic position.

Two thoughts here: First, protectionism is politically appealing (as underscored by the Senate's 71-to-27 passage of a trade bill Tuesday), because it involves a search for scapegoats. But finding scapegoats does not resolve deep structural problems within an economy. In that regard, Kemp is on the mark. Second, Washington must take tougher action than it has hitherto in finding solutions for its major economic difficulties, as Gephardt argues. Continued high budget and trade deficits, for example, cannot be justified.

The Kemp-Gephardt debate was useful. We hope other presidential contenders follow suit with mini-debates of their own on the subject of ensuring continued US productivity and global commerce.

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