`The Message' From Paul Tsongas May Be What Democrats Need To Hear

Pssst. Democrats. Want to win back the White House sometime this century? Stop by Lowell, Mass., on Apr. 30, and listen to Paul E. Tsongas declare his Presidential candidacy. He may be the darkest of horses to win a single Democratic primary, let alone beat George Bush. But if the party could field a 1992 candidate who combined some of Tsongas' ideas with upbeat appeal, they'd be on to something.

"Mine is a word-of-mouth campaign," says 50-year-old Tsongas, who concedes that unless Democrats start buying his concepts, his effort "is going nowhere." Tsongas' ideas are laid out in an 83-page single-spaced epistle to the Democrats that he simply calls "the paper." In it, he challenges his fellow partisans to drop business-bashing and class warfare and start talking about how the nation takes on economic superpowers Germany and Japan. "Corporate America must survive, indeed thrive, if our Democratic social agenda is to have any hope of implementation," says Tsongas.

His solution: "Industrial policy is what Japan has. It's what Germany has. It is what we must have as well," he declares. "Wake up, my Republican friends. It's a brave new world out there. Adam Smith wouldn't know a superconductor or a memory chip if he tripped over one."

Tsongas wants the government to deal with a shortage of venture capital by stepping in and investing in promising technologies. He's not afraid of committing Democratic heresies. He favors reduced capital-gains tax for long-term investments and for investors in small and emerging businesses. He favors developing nuclear power, relaxing antitrust laws so companies can enter into joint ventures, and vastly increasing spending for scientific research.

Like Tsongas, a self-declared "pro-business Democrat," many party thinkers want to appeal more to disaffected suburban independents. "He's got the message, all right," says Democratic National Committee Treasurer Robert Farmer. Adds Stuart E. Eizenstat, domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter: "This is the direction the party needs to take. We just haven't had someone to articulate it."

TOUGH VOTES. Republican strategist Kevin Phillips calls Tsongas "the last of the Atari Democrats," referring to a late 1970s breed who wanted more government-industry cooperation to meet global competition, particularly in high-tech industries. But he faces the same daunting challenge that defeated them a decade ago. To win, he must convince the interest groups that make up the heart of the party--minorities, union members, liberals--that they've been wrong.

Furthermore, Tsongas wraps a fundamentally optimistic picture of an America that can win--in warnings of the catastrophes about to befall the U. S. economy. He likens his prescription for the nation to his own successful fight against the lymphoma that caused him to retire from the Senate in 1985. The story is inspiring, but the metaphor is likely to prove disconcerting to voters. And some of Tsongas' specific proposals, such as a steady escalation of the federal gasoline tax, are bound to turn off the blue-collar voters the party needs.

Since edging out of obscurity and into the Presidential arena, Tsongas has had to endure questions about his health and endless barbs about being another Greek-American Democratic candidate from Massachusetts. But Tsongas isn't Michael Dukakis. He gives strong voice to the frustrations of American business, with a Democratic spin. He's not likely to go far in the 1992 race, but if he can nudge Democrats away from their orthodox liberalism, he could put the party on a path toward victory in 1996.

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