WASHINGTON — Former Democratic presidential candidate Paul E. Tsongas and retiring Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman joined with a youth group Wednesday in an effort to force politicians to deal more honestly with what they believe is the most pressing economic issue of the 1990s--the federal deficit.
In a Washington press conference, Tsongas and Rudman lent their support to a new group, called "Lead or Leave," that wants to force political leaders and candidates to take a pledge to leave office if the federal deficit is not cut in half within four years.
Both men said they support the group, put together by two Washington activists and initially financed by Rudman, Tsongas and Pete Peterson, a Wall Street investment banker and former commerce secretary.
The organization hopes to attract student activists around the nation and galvanize young voters to demand that candidates accept responsibility for the mountain of federal debt--which now totals $4 trillion--that today's leaders are bequeathing to future generations.
Lead or Leave's co-founders, Rob Nelson, a 29-year-old former fund-raiser for liberal causes, and Jon Cowan, a 27-year-old former aide to Rep. Mel Levine (D-Los Angeles), said they got the idea from following the career of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who decided not to seek reelection this year to live up to his 1986 promise not to run again if the deficit had not been dramatically reduced.
At least one major political candidate--former Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm, now a Democratic candidate for the Senate, took the group's pledge this week, Nelson and Cowan said.
Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, announced three months ago that he would retire at the end of this year because of his growing frustration with Washington's inability to deal with the deficit. Tsongas, a former senator from Massachusetts, won widespread praise for offering blunt talk about the need to deal with the deficit during his presidential bid earlier this year.
Rudman, Tsongas and Peterson are also forming their own group, dubbed the "Concord Coalition," that they hope will force the deficit issue onto the front burner of this fall's campaign agenda.
Both Rudman and Tsongas contended that since Ross Perot dropped out of the presidential race neither President Bush nor Democratic nominee Bill Clinton are seriously addressing the issue.
The deficit, expected to total $333.5 billion in fiscal 1992--has soared to new records during the Bush Administration, while Clinton has been widely assailed by economists for promising to halve the federal deficit while also dramatically raising federal spending on such investments as education, training, public works and child health and nutrition.
"Part of our job is to provide a political constituency for the hard choices," Tsongas said.
Rudman and Tsongas charged that neither party has shown the will to deal with mandatory spending in such programs as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Such "entitlement" programs, along with interest on the debt, now dominate federal spending.