First, Do No Harm


Let's not kid ourselves: Bill Clinton does not have much of an economic program. What he proposes to do is tinker at the edges -- a tax credit here, a government-subsidized volunteer program there.

Some of these ideas, like education tax credits, are at best dubious. Others, like eliminating the capital gains tax on houses, are election-year give-aways that would not cost much money but do send the wrong signals to the public, which should learn that we can no longer afford such gestures. But President Clinton's economic program is the only alternative for Americans who care about our nation's troubled future, because Bob Dole's program is immeasurably worse. It is a shame that we must choose between the lesser of two evils, but we must. Mr. Clinton's sins are venial compared with the desperate irresponsibility and cynicism of his opponent.

The sad truth about this year's economic debate is that the biggest issue facing the Federal Government -- the issue that should be uppermost in our minds -- is not being discussed at all. Most of what happens in our economy is beyond the reach of government policy. In particular, the evidence suggests that it is difficult for the Government to have any visible effect on the economy's long-term growth rate.

There is one thing, however, that the Government can and must control: its own budget. And it is heading inexorably toward fiscal disaster, as the baby boomers in the tens of millions march steadily toward the age at which they can claim Social Security and Medicare. True, the crisis is still about 15 years away. But we expect responsible adults to start preparing for their retirement decades in advance; why shouldn't we ask the same of our Government?

Unfortunately, everything that a responsible government should be doing now -- raising taxes, raising the retirement age, scaling back benefits for those who can manage without them (that means for the affluent, not the poor) -- is political poison.

It may be too much to ask the candidates to preach responsibility to the public, but we can at least ask them not to make things even worse by offering goodies the nation cannot afford.

Mr. Clinton basically passes this test. He announced many new programs in his acceptance speech, but they were without exception brilliantly devised to sound important while costing very little money. For example, the proposal to eliminate capital gains taxes on houses would cost the Treasury only a few hundred million dollars a year, because existing law allows most people to avoid such taxes anyway.

While President Clinton's claim to pay for each of his new programs "line by line, dime by dime" surely involves some creative accounting, his ideas, which seem to have been based on achieving as many sound bites as possible for $10 billion or less, will not break the bank. Bob Dole's half-trillion dollar tax cut -- which he proposes to pay for with smoke, mirrors and wishful thinking -- will.

The really disturbing thing about the Republican program is that we have good reason to wonder whether Mr. Dole himself believes in it. Until recently he was openly contemptuous of the supply-side ideas he now espouses. And the former Senate majority leader knows better than anyone else that a plan relying on "magic asterisks" -- spending cuts to be specified later -- is doomed to fail, because you need a public mandate to scale back the popular programs that make up the bulk of Federal spending.

Some people say that this election is not only about policy, but also about character. I agree. But when I look at Bob Dole, I see a man who for the sake of ambition would choose to gamble with the very solvency of our Government.

Mr. Clinton offers the public an empty economic plan. Does he deserve to win? Maybe not. But Mr. Dole deserves to lose.

Originally published, 9.4.96