`Cross My Heart And Hope To Die, I'll Cut The Deficit'

Dressed in faded jeans, Jon Cowan, 27, and Rob Nelson, 29, don't much look like prophets of austerity. Cowan is a former Democratic Hill aide; Nelson, an independent political fund-raiser. But this obscure duo from the MTV generation is trying to hold elected officials accountable for the red ink on the nation's books. They're asking candidates for Congress--and the White House--to sign a pledge: If the $300 billion-plus budget deficit isn't cut in half by 1996, they won't run for reelection.

Their movement, called "Lead or Leave," has the great virtue of reducing the complexity of restoring fiscal balance to a bumper-sticker slogan. But why would politicians promise to end their careers because of a collective failure that's not any single member's fault? Because, say the "Lead or Leave" organizers, the deficit won't be attacked seriously until a majority of Congress accepts personal responsibility for it. By November, they hope to secure the pledge from 100 elected officials. Says Nelson: "If we tie members' political careers to this, reducing the deficit will become the highest priority."

GRINCHES. That may sound like civics-class wishful thinking. But Cowan and Nelson are off to a surprisingly strong start. Seventy candidates for the House and Senate, including 10 incumbents and 15 likely winners, have sworn to lead or leave.

Other backers include such budget grinches as investment banker Peter G. Peterson, former Democratic Presidential contender Paul Tsongas, and retiring Senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N. H.). They've formed a nonprofit outfit called the Concord Coalition to force politicians to discuss deficit cuts. Trade hawk Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr. and Richard Dennis, a well-known Chicago commodities broker, are helping to bankroll Lead or Leave. Ross Perot, who made deficit reduction the centerpiece of his abortive Presidential bid, has also endorsed the pledge. But he has given no money.

When Cowan and Nelson first started circulating the pledge last spring, few politicians took them seriously. "Ridiculous," Tsongas recalls thinking. "Then I thought some more. If I were a challenger, I would love this. It gives you a leg up on any incumbent."

No question, it's that kind of year. Even such congressional leaders as House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) have been hounded. Initially, GOPAC, the political-action committee run by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), told its candidates to ignore the group. But Gingrich, who narrowly survived a primary challenge, now says he may sign. One reason: GOP Senate hopeful Paul Coverdale is using his pledge conversion to hammer incumbent Wyche Fowler Jr. (D-Ga.). And in Colorado, both Democratic and Republican candidates for an open Senate seat have been badgered into taking it.

Even before Cowan and Nelson appeared on the scene, some pols were swearing similar oaths on their own. In 1986, Senator Kent Conrad (D-N. D.) promised voters he would make a big dent in the deficit or he wouldn't try for a second term. To everyone's shock, Conrad meant it: He announced his retirement earlier this year. "This is a way to get enough people to take the pledge together so that nobody has to fall on their sword again," says Cowan.

HIT BY FURY. The beauty of devices like the pledge is that voters tend to take them a lot more seriously than Washington pundits. New Hampshire conservatives invented their famous "no new taxes" oath a few years back, and in a desperate moment during the 1988 primary campaign, candidate George Bush took it. He was totally unprepared for the fury that hit him in 1990 after he reneged.

So far, both Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton are ignoring the duo. Neither candidate has a plan to eliminate the deficit in the foreseeable future. "These guys are doing whatever it takes to get elected, deficit be damned," says Carleton College's Steven Schier.

Lead or Leave is no big-budget operation. Cowan and Nelson hope to raise $160,000 by November, largely for a radio and MTV ad campaign. They are also courting actors Tom Cruise, Winona Ryder, and Christian Slater to do promotions. "It's a myth that young people don't understand the deficit," says Nelson. "The nation has taken out a line of credit in our names. We will be paying the rest of our lives."

The populist efforts of a couple of young unknowns are unlikely to make veteran politicians deal with the deficit. But as George Bush keeps saying, it's weird out there this year. Voters are angry enough with politics as usual that Lead or Leave might make an impact.

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