Undemocratic Dialogue BY DAVE DENISON New Hampshire In a nation linked by telephone answering machines, computer bulletin boards, voice mail and telefaxes, it is only natural that politics is seen more and more as a process of sending and receiving messages. The metaphor seems to imply a desire to make contact with a distant party, but without taking too much time or requiring real interaction. The efficiency is thought to work both ways: The politician delivers a 30-second message to the voter between regularly scheduled TV programs. The voter responds to it by giving the thumbs up or down in the voting booth or, even easier, by registering an opinion with the nightly tracking poll. “Send Bush a message. Vote Pat Buchanan for President,” went the most effective television spot so far this season. “Hello Washington! New Hampshire calling,” said Paul Tsongas on the night he won among Democrats in the nation’s first primary. His two-word message to the President: “Wake up!” Bush himself had already recognized the argot: “Message: I care!” he said on one of his rare campaign appearances in New Hampshire. At times there seemed to be a confusing technobuzz, a ringing in the ears, attributable perhaps to too many incompatible signals occupying the same frequency. Pat Buchanan and Democrat Jerry Brown were both calling for a new American revolution. They both urged voters to “take back America.” But it wasn’t with Brown that Buchanan shared a wavelength. The Democrat he would vote for, were he voting in the Democratic primary, was Tsongas, he told a Boston TV interview show. Tsongas also mightily impressed the right-wing Hollywood actor Tom Selleck a latter-day political Charlton Heston who heard the sober and earnest candidate on TV and immediately reached for his checkbook. Meanwhile, Tsongas who began his political career as a Republican explained his victory as the ratification of a bold new economic message for the . Democratic Party. Former White House chief of staffJohn Sununu, still loyal to his former boss, accused Buchanan of being a “McGovernized” Republican against the war, against free trade. \(George McGovern, for his part, expressed regret in a newspaper oped article that he was not in the race, saying the continued to be beguiled by the mixed signals emanating from New York governor Mario Cuomo, who took 3.9 percent of the New Hampshire Democratic vote as a write-in candidate. The primary season has seemed to commence Former Observer editor Dave Denison listened to Democratic and Republican candidates and non-candidates at campaign stops in New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the weeks leading up to the New Hampshire primary. 4 FEBRUARY 28, 1992 with a jangle of mixed messages. But as noisy contradictions echoed through the New Hampshire political atmosphere, there were also traces of real communication between politicians and citizens. There was the beginning of a conversation. It was not always at the front and center of the political spectacle. And as the candidates move on to bigger and more diverse media markets and a more frenetic schedule, chances are slim that the conversation will be kept up. Herewith, an attempt to capture the essence of it for the historical record and for the consideration of Super Tuesday voters. 1 n keeping with the spirit of the season, we turn for our invocation to a man who is not in the race: Gary Halt On a recent PBS television panel, the former Senator from Colorado assessed the political landscape as deftly as any of this year’s candidates. “Ideally, the ’92 campaign would be a great debate entitled ‘Whither America? ‘,” Hart said. “We have for the first time in half a century with the demise of communism the chance to reorder the priorities of this country a phrase the Democrats like a lot. But we can really now do it…. You cannot restructure and redesign America for the 21st Century without the government playing a role. And George Bush doesn’t believe the government has a role. This is a Democratic opportunity. The candidate who articulates that message not just who has a message but who links the end of the Cold War with the chance for a real historic American renewal will win this election.” Of course, this is not the debate the Bush Administration is planning to conduct with the Democratic nominee this fall. The Republican strategy is clear enough even from a vantage point of 10 months out. As Federal Reserve policies of low interest rates begin to have apparent positive effect this summer, the administration pronounces the recession over and talks nothing but good news through October. The Democratic nominee is kept on the defensive about his private life, his war record, his health, his welfare sympathies, his liberalism … whatever may apply. But suppose Hart’s “Great Debate” had a chance. Suppose voters don’t buy Bush’s claims of a rebounding economy? Suppose, like New Hampshire voters in February, the electorate refuses to be distracted. Suppose America decides the economy is a worthwhile subject for debate. Which of the Democrats could best conduct such a debate? Who has shown the best feel for this “Democratic opportunity?” If one listened closely enough on the New Hampshire hustings, one could hear the outlines of the Democratic argument beginning to form. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton were similar in approach and more adept than the others. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was steadfast in relying on traditional Democratic thinking. Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey was game but erratic. And former California Gov. Jerry Brown was the boldest and the least coherent. The tone was set from the beginning by Tsongas. The first candidate to enter the race against Bush, Tsongas has for years been motivated by the conviction that the Democratic Party is “anti-business” and thus has a poor chance of managing the country’s economic affairs. A product of Lowell, Mass., just 15 miles south of the New Hampshire border, Tsongas knew the territory well enough to understand that his positioning as a “probusiness” Democrat would be greeted warmly by the cautious and conservative New Hampshire electorate. Tsongas has gotten political mileage out of his self-crafted image as a sober truth-teller a politician with the courage not to promise a middle-class tax cut. He cast himself as the castor oil candidate: And New Hampshire, which as far as anyone can remember has never produced a politician with a sense of humor, lapped it up. Everywhere Tsongas went, he handed out copies of his 86-page political booklet “A Call to Economic Arms.” It’s an unremarkable tract, punctuated with such politician-speak as: “We must all be soldiers every one of us.” And, “America in 1991 needs our total devotion.” He uses his own story of beating cancer as a metaphor for America’s economic challenge. “Avoidance of hard truths makes the inevitable dealing with them all the more difficult. And what is true for individuals is also true for nations.” Tsongas often tells of his epiphany while serving in the U.S. Senate. Unsure one day of how to vote on an issue on the floor he got the word from his floor leader that the vote was “no” because a “yes” vote was pro-business. One might wonder whether if only the floor leader would have used a more exact shorthand and said a “yes” vote was for “the vested interests,” Tsongas would have charted a different course. But Tsongas decided to make friends with business. When he left the Senate in 1984 he took positions on eight corporate boards, including Wang Laboratories, and worked as a lawyer and lobbyist. From his posi. tion on the inside, he naturally began to see political issues more often from a CEO’s perspective. Now he charges that most Democrats don’t understand the process of wealth creation. “You cannot redistribute wealth that is never created,” he likes to say. On the campaign trail, Tsongas enjoyed the role of brave Democratic heretic and didn’t mind if Republicans heard his “pro-business” line and took him for one of their own. But in reality there is the germ of a disagreement here between Tsongas’ understanding of the role of business and the Reagan-Bush view. Tsongas is in that camp of mostly East Coast academics and business leaders who favor an explicit industrial policy in which government and business work in
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