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COLUMN LEFT/ ALEXANDER COCKBURN : What's Below the Bottom of the Barrel : Paul Tsongas has a corporate agenda, a bad health plan and no economic solutions.

February 16, 1992|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications. and

At least you could say for Bill Clinton that he made a pretense of talking about a social charter. It's true that in all essentials his was the neoliberal, corporate agenda, but he did pay some small lip service to notions of fairness and equity.

But with Paul Tsongas, the pro-tem front-running Democrat, there's no honey on the lip of the medicine cup. This well-heeled corporate lawyer glories in the prescriptive language of pain, and well-heeled commentators fall all over themselves to endorse his calls for "sacrifice."

There's always been an honored place in the hokum industry for a no-frills candidate who supposedly tells it like it is, preaching pain from the hair-shirt booth. Tsongas is just an unusually shameless example of the genre. In him is embodied the unvarnished truth of what the Democratic Party is capable of offering a country desperate for vision and for change.

As a lawyer, Tsongas wheels and deals for real estate developers and insurance companies. He sits on the board of Boston Edison, which operates the Pilgrim One nuclear plant in Massachusetts. At the height of the go-go years, Tsongas and his partner were being paid by the junk-bond empire of Drexel Burnham Lambert to drum up business among state and local officials.

The economic program nourished from this manure is not surprising. "Business knows better" is the Tsongas mantra. But if one lesson can be derived from the economic wreckage of the past 15 years, it is that uncontrolled "market forces" produce economic and social disaster.

In the face of this recent history, Tsongas attacks government with exactly the rhetorical opportunism of a Ronald Reagan, and with exactly the same placid servility to the corporate agenda.

Take his health plan. Last July, Tsongas' response to questions about his health policy was, "I haven't thought about it yet." Then, finally reacting to an issue uppermost in American minds, he reached out to the market-oriented consultants mustered around Alain Enthoven of Stanford and carefully shunned the single-payer health system successfully functioning in Canada, confiding that what he termed the United States' different "economic and demographic mix" (poor people, black and brown people) made it inapplicable here.

The Tsongas health plan is an employer-based system, restricting choice for the middle class and giving the poor lousy care at vast expense to the taxpayer. Vastly benefiting from such proposals would be insurance companies like Aetna, Cigna and Travelers, all members of the American Insurance Assn., which retained Tsongas in 1989 to work on environmental issues.

The environment offers another fine example of Tsongan neoliberalism in action. He presents himself as nature's friend, and one who, in his Senate days, was foremost in the fight for Alaska's wilderness. Alaska may play well to the Sierra Club crowd, but any environmentalism not hobbled by elitism must address itself to dirty air at the poor end of town, toxic dumps in black and Latino neighborhoods, lethal chemicals in factories, radiation risks from atomic plants.

Here Tsongas is silent. He can afford to be. High-end liberals don't often look further than Alaska or the abortion issue before they decide they can live with a candidate who is in all other identifiable ways a living refutation to the liberal ideal. Tsongas is of course pro-choice, but he favors mandatory HIV testing for health professionals, a scheme opposed by every knowledgeable person in the AIDS area and promoted by Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Moon).

What Tsongas demonstrates is how utterly bereft of thought a supposedly "thoughtful" candidate can be without anyone raising an eyebrow. End of the Cold War, economic conversion, the peace bonus? The best Tsongas can suggest is that we use the money saved from the defense budget to pay off the deficit--a sure recipe for recession.

Economic vision? He talks of a budget freeze. He wants lower long-term interest rates (a good idea). His detailed strategy to get rates down? "We should put people to work immediately on these vital projects."

People are profoundly fearful of the future, politically volatile, open to new ideas and to radical reordering of the national agenda. But the country's political superstructure, buoyed by corporate cash, has become immune to this reality. One consequence is the Tsongas boom, which will no doubt be followed by fresh prayers for the Second Coming, otherwise known as the candidacy of a New York governor whose major achievement thus far has been the construction of enormous prisons in his home state, an apt symbol of the Democratic creed.

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