Will Bashing Business Boost The Democrats' Chances?

If there's any message for Corporate America coming out of the Sept. 20-21 Democratic National Committee meeting in Los Angeles, it's this: Despite their talk of a new centrist course, most of the party's Presidential hopefuls plan to make business a prime target in the 1992 campaign.

The catalyst is a long string of outrages ranging from the Salomon Brothers scandal to the furor over executive pay to the endless bailouts of banks and thrifts. Many Democrats think they can score with an attack linking Reagan-Bush coziness with business to the financial follies.

In Los Angeles, the contenders offered a preview of their campaign themes. Former California Governor Jerry Brown declared that a decade of GOP rule has turned government into a "Stop N Shop for the greedy" and lashed out at "takeover pirates that strip the assets of companies." Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, an unabashed populist, chimed in with a blast at "those at the top who get what they can."

Even Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who has urged fellow Democrats to resist Bush-bashing, joined in. "George Bush is more than willing to tell Israel how to behave," he thundered. "Why won't he tell Wall Street how to behave?" Clinton railed against "CEOs who raise their pay and run their companies into the ground," only to "bail out with a golden parachute to a cozy retirement." Meanwhile, Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, a successful entrepreneur who had avoided antibusiness rhetoric, skipped the L. A. gathering. But on the stump, he attacks an Administration that "listens to the army of executives whose private jets arrive daily at National Airport."

The public may be ready for a little lashing of business excesses. A new CNN-Gallup poll shows that voters, by a 2-1 margin, tag the Republicans as the party of "political favoritism and corruption." Three-fourths of voters say the GOP favors the wealthy and big business. "This is a wedge issue for Democrats to win back working-class Reagan Democrats," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

GOP strategists admit that the Democrats may score with the issue, but they're not trembling. "There's definitely a negative attitude out there against anything big. Big Labor. Big Government. Big Business," says GOP pollster Ed Goeas. But as long as voters distrust Democratic management of the economy, Republicans don't feel vulnerable.

Why would a bunch of Democratic unknowns who soon will hit up executives for campaign contributions bite the hand they hope will feed them? Largely because in a steep uphill race against Bush, they feel they have nothing to lose. "They are going to take big risks," says party strategist Tad Devine. Taking pokes at business--by itself--won't win the election for the Democrats, but for now it may be the one of the few economic issues they can exploit.