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Babbitt Enters Democrat Field for President

March 11, 1987|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt Tuesday announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, proposing a series of changes in economic policy that he promised would give control of their national destiny back to Americans.

"I want to see an America in charge again," Babbitt told several score supporters gathered here in the nation's first presidential primary state. "And that is going to take nothing less than a transformation of our economy."

Babbitt's announcement site, an old textile mill converted into a science learning center, was chosen to dramatize the candidate's faith in the potential of high tech for boosting productivity.

Among the provocative ideas for change offered by the newly announced candidate:

--Raising taxes on Social Security payments to affluent beneficiaries.

--Expanding profit-sharing plans to cover two-thirds of the work force.

--Scrapping current trade agreements to allow the United States to impose stiff tariffs on nations that export far more to this country than they import.

Babbitt is the second candidate to formally enter the race for the 1988 Democratic nomination, joining Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt who declared last month. Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, the front-runner in the polls, Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are expected to make their announcements this spring. Aides to Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis say that he will disclose next week whether he will be a candidate.

Early Votes Vital

Slim and sandy haired, the 48-year-old Babbitt is known for his restrained manner and his intellectual seriousness. Like several other contenders who are little known nationally, his prospects rest heavily on his making a strong showing in the initial delegate contests next year in Iowa caucuses and then here in New Hampshire.

More particularly, though, Babbitt's advisers say his campaign is geared to his various proposals for changes in public policy. "This campaign is going to rise or fall on the response to his (Babbitt's) ideas on issues," said Sergio Bendixen, a consultant to the campaign. "The essence of his candidacy is the gutsiness of his proposals."

Indeed many of the ideas Babbitt ticked off in his earnestly delivered 30-minute announcement speech seemed certain, as the candidate put it himself in his opening remarks, "to make waves."

For example, his proposal for boosting the tax on Social Security benefits--up to half of which are now taxable for couples with incomes above $32,000--is likely to be viewed as a threat to continued political support from the middle class for the Social Security system.

But Babbitt framed his proposal as a question of priorities. "Government can't do everything for everybody," he said. "Do the Vanderbilts and the Mellons really need just the same tax exempt Social Security benefit as a widow in a cold water flat?"

Productivity Pay

Similarly Babbitt's profit-sharing proposal would be regarded with anxiety by organized labor, out of fear that it could turn into a loss-sharing scheme. But Babbitt contended: "The next President ought to say that no American company will be permitted to deduct an executive bonus as a business expense unless it offers productivity pay to every single employee," adding that such bonuses should be exempt from income taxes.

As for Babbitt's tariff hike idea, it seems certain to draw criticism from free traders. But Babbitt argued: "The overall value of what you sell to the world must match the overall value of what you buy. And if that is not the case and if you won't balance your accounts, then your victims will balance them for you--with across the board tariffs that increase every year."

In the lesser portion of his speech dealing with foreign affairs Babbitt called for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing and a moratorium with the Soviet Union on deployment of "Star Wars" weaponry. He also sharply criticized the Reagan Administration's arms dealings with Iran.

"We must never again trade anything of value for a hostage," he said. "America does not have to leave arms merchants in charge of our diplomacy."

Babbitt in effect has been running for President since early 1985 when he decided neither to try for another term as governor after nine years in that office nor to seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Barry Goldwater.

Urges New Approaches

Though little known to the general public, he was already attracting attention in political circles outside Arizona because of his vigorous advocacy of new approaches to government problems in speeches and published articles.

Despite his responsibilities as governor and with the help of his own political action committee, Babbitt--like other 1988 Democratic hopefuls--began stumping around the country in 1986. He made 18 visits to Iowa and nine to New Hampshire, building a network of support for his candidacy.

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