Democrats are groping for a sharp-edged economic issue as the 1988 election draws closer. Seven top Democrats, all running for president, debated economic policy over the weekend in Iowa - but the worst charge they could bring against Republicans was responsibility for the mounting federal debt, now over $2 trillion.
The challenge for Democrats: in October, America's economic expansion will set an all-time record, the longest period of sustained, peacetime growth since record-keeping began during the Civil War.
Gone are the jobless lines of the 1982 recession. Gone are the 20 percent interest rates that Ronald Reagan used to pound the Democrats in 1980. Gone are the 12 percent inflation rates. Gone are the gasoline lines.
Unemployment rates keep falling, mortgages are available for around 10 percent, and inflation has been at least temporarily caged.
Today's problems - trade deficits, the export of jobs, and the shift of technology and industrial power abroad - are harder to turn into political bombshells.
Even so, at the debate in Des Moines, Democrats tried to lob a few economic grenades at the White House.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the ``dominant issue of our day is economic violence,'' fostered by the GOP. That ``violence'' has cut spending on education, hurt family farmers, and deprived the elderly of care, he charged.
Jackson also ripped into ``multinational barracudas,'' like General Electric and General Motors, for exporting jobs to countries such as South Korea and Taiwan and killing small businesses at home.
Former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona blasted huge bonuses for management as rewards for getting rid of American workers. He called for ``real workplace democracy,'' where practices like greenmail and golden parachutes were eliminated, and joint ownership with workers was encouraged.
Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois called for agreement among Democrats on three principles to improve the economy: first, that the United States is spending too much on weapons; second, that education should be the nation's top priority; third, that older Americans must be protected against hardship.
US Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri said the US economy reflects ``failed values,'' including the giving of millions of dollars to the contras in Nicaragua ``who are killing children.''
The Iowa debate, one of several expected to take place before that state's February caucuses, didn't produce a clear-cut winner, in the view of analysts.
However, it was obvious that several of the candidates consider Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts to be the current frontrunner. The governor was jabbed by three of the others, particularly by a newcomer to the race, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee.
Senator Gore and others, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, poked at the governor for speaking in generalities, for exaggerating the amount of money a tax amnesty could raise, and for taking a regional approach to national problems.
Governor Dukakis, extrapolating from his Massachusetts experience, talked of $110 billion a year of uncollected federal taxes that a tax amnesty would bring in. Senator Biden said a more realistic figure would be about $2 billion.
Dukakis proposed helping farmers by restructuring loans, focusing price supports on family farms, finding new uses for agricultural products - such as the development of grain-based gasohol - and investing in rural development.
``The problem with what Governor Dukakis has just said is that it contains no specifics,'' Senator Gore responded. Gore then laid out his own program, which included an expanded role for the Agricultural Extension Service and a ban on any more farm embargoes.
Despite months of campaigning in Iowa, none of the seven principal Democratic contenders has pulled far in front of the field. Polls indicate that the three strongest contenders in Iowa at the moment are Congressman Gephardt, Governor Dukakis, and Senator Biden.