Democratic candidates for president demonstrated in their first television debate that they are as much at odds on what to do about the sagging economy as the Bush administration and its cacophonous choir of bickering Republicans.
Bill Clinton, Bob Kerrey, Doug Wilder and Jerry Brown were all for the vote-getting ploy of cutting middle-class taxes -- a step described even by liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith as "foolish, even mildly insane." Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas were laudably against the idea but diametrically opposite in their remedies.
All this suggests that precious little consensus or enlightenment will be generated on the campaign trail. With primary season just two months away, the candidates will keep on jabbering non-stop while any concrete action (for better or for worse) will take place in Washington. Right after the first of the year, voters can expect frantic maneuvering between a White House trying to stop President Bush's plunge in the opinion polls and leaders in Congress trying to put together a politically acceptable package to assuage their constituents.
In the Sunday night debate, soaring budget deficits were hardly mentioned. Senator Harkin, pushing his message of New Deal populism, questioned whether a tax cut offering each American family an extra dollar a day would jump-start a recovery. He was all for public works spending that, presumably, would be paid for much later by defense cuts. So much for the national debt. Former Senator Tsongas disparaged these old Democratic remedies, arguing the country's manufacturing base must be restored (evidently through Republican-flavored investment incentives.) His iconoclasm is welcome even if he can't win.
At least Messrs. Harkin and Tsongas resisted the tax-cut siren songs. Not so for their opponents. Governor Wilder urged middle class tax cuts to push a consumer-driven recovery, an idea of some psychological merit that skirts the question of how a few billion dollars will move a $5.5 trillion economy. Former Governor Brown was off on a moon-dream of merging Social Security payroll taxes and income taxes to the benefit of the average voter. Governor Clinton and Senator Kerrey promoted a soak-the-rich strategy, evidently preferring a veto battle in Washington in anticipation of the fall general election campaign.
Election-year politics will not get the nation out of this painful recession. We are left to rely on the uncertain operation of economic forces and the hope that anything Washington does will be more helpful than harmful.