All Eyes On Tsonganomics

Call him the un-Democrat, the man who would turn FDR's portrait to the wall and invite crowds of small-business owners into the White House. And forget the jokes about "another Greek from Massachusetts." Paul E. Tsongas is no Michael Dukakis. With his probusiness platform and his disdain for the "Santa Claus giveaway" campaign promises of his Democratic opponents, Tsongas often sounds more like a moderate Republican than a Democratic standard-bearer.

That may be the secret of his early success. Ask William Hoffman of Hollis, N.H., a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican who voted for the former Massachusetts senator. "Tsongas really recognizes reality--he's an Eisenhower Republican. That's why I like him," exclaims Hoffman, owner of Concrete Cutting Corp., a small construction business. Or ask Christopher Weber, a California business consultant who found himself pulled into a crowded motel ballroom in Concord, N.H., with hundreds of other Tsongas supporters, their noses buried in the candidate's 86-page A Call to Economic Arms--all waiting for the candidate to arrive. "I never voted for a Democrat before, but I'll vote for Paul Tsongas," says Weber.

Many mainstream Democrats are watching Tsongas' progress with exasperation, if not hostility. Grouses Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute and a supporter of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton: "There is very little in Tsongas' program about the underclass. He doesn't talk about family breakdowns, pregnancy, high crime, unemployment. It lacks compassion. It's too technocratic."

DEATH TRAP. Meanwhile, Tsongas revels in criticism from the party Establishment. "Democrats have always been antibusiness, class-warfarish, and protectionist. That's an economic death trap," he says. The Tsongas solution: tax cuts and investment incentives for business. But the middle class would get a jolt: higher gasoline taxes, no cut in income taxes, and no special breaks targeted to kids. And he would promote energy independence by encouraging the development of nuclear power, an idea that outrages many environmentalists.

Tsongas also gives organized labor fits. His educational program--merit pay for teachers, school vouchers, national standards for testing and curriculums--is about as welcome at the American Federation of Teachers as fingernails dragged across a blackboard. And he's no hero to the AFL-CIO. "He has no support, none whatsoever," says Jack Sheinkman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union. "He doesn't represent the viewpoint of most Americans."

That's not all that irks unionists. Tsongas opposes labor's top legislative goal--a bill that would outlaw the hiring ofpermanent replacements for striking workers. And he supports a free-trade pact with Mexico, also anathema to the AFL-CIO.

And tax fairness? That's for second terms, says Tsongas. His top priority is creating jobs by granting business its wish list. Of course, business would have to swallow some things it doesn't want, including mandatory health-insurance coverage for all workers.

Tsonganomics is built around an industrial policy designed to revive U. S. manufacturing by encouraging the growth of sectors such as high-tech electronics. "There will continue to be industrial obituaries," he told BUSINESS WEEK. "The problem is, we aren't focused on industrial birth notices. We must get away from a sunset mentality, a mentality in which you think you are in decline, you see what's left, and try to save it."

FAST ENOUGH? For all of his attention to the needs of business, Tsongas admits that before Tuesday's eight-point vic-tory over Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, he wasn't exactly being flooded with business support. But he's hopeful. "Once they begin to say, 'Gee, this guy has a chance,' the chemistry changes. The question is, does it change fast enough to keep us alive?"

Tsongas' tenuous front-runner status and iconoclastic bent may not suit the un-Democrat too well, especially in the South and Midwest. Once Tsongas is placed under the media microscope, "his appeal may wear off pretty quickly," warns Republican strategist Kevin Phillips. The front-runner's service on corporate boards should suffice to explain his probusiness slant, says Phillips.

In New Hampshire, the seeming novelty of his economic program took Tsongas a long way. In the weeks to come, however, he is sure to be hit withharder questions about his service as a lobbyist for Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. and other corporate interests. In other words, Tsongas will undergo the same sort of trial-by-media that singed Clinton.

Tsongas' preaching against the economics of instant gratification--while promising a better future--appealed in New Hampshire, where recession-weary voters distrust easy solutions. It may be a much tougher sell in the delegate-rich primaries that lie ahead.

      MIDDLE-CLASS TAX CUT Opposes it, calling it a "Santa Claus" giveaway to 
      parents, to be paid for by their children
      CAPITAL-GAINS TAX CUT Favors a cut in taxes on stock sales. The longer the 
      holding period, the smaller the tax rate. Lowest rates go to investment in 
      smaller outfits
      EDUCATION Favors merit pay for teachers, longer school days, school choice, 
      national standards for curriculums
      ENERGY Favors smaller, safer nuclear plants, emphasizes conservation, natural 
      gas, and renewable energy, warns that coal and oil are "poisons" leading to 
      global warming
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