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VIEW FROM WASHINGTON / JAMES RISEN

Will Clinton Ever Take On the Fortune 500?

April 21, 1996|JAMES RISEN | JAMES RISEN is a staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau

One of the unnoticed casualties of the tragic airplane crash that claimed the life of Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown was a high-visibility White House conference on a subject that still has the potential to become a critical battleground in the 1996 presidential campaign: corporate responsibility.

President Clinton had been scheduled to hold a White House summit meeting April 10 with a group of chief executives of major corporations, whom Clinton planned to laud for going above and beyond the call of duty in trying to develop worker-friendly policies.

The idea: to highlight companies that have done well by doing good, firms that have found they can enhance their corporate performance by resisting the trendy urge to cut, slash and purge. Left unstated, but hard to miss, would be the implied criticism of the executives not invited to the White House; the chieftains of companies that have conducted massive layoffs while lining their own pockets with huge salaries and bonuses.

This is an election year, and so the conference was to have a thinly veiled political agenda as well--help Clinton test-drive a campaign issue that might resonate with middle-class Americans fearful for their jobs and angry over exorbitant executive compensation. Can Clinton get political mileage out of decrying the new willingness of major corporations to show no mercy to employees, to downsize their way to record profits?

Brown and some of the executives who died in the crash in Croatia with him were planning to participate, and so the conference has been postponed, with no makeup date yet scheduled.

But as Clinton gears up for this year's extra-long general election campaign, liberal Democrats are urging him to grab the whole range of economic insecurity and corporate responsibility issues as a way to bring middle-class whites back into the Democratic fold.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the token liberal on Clinton's economic team and the administration's chief proponent of the idea of mounting a corporate responsibility campaign, has done everything but tackle Clinton to get him to start speaking up on the subject.

"What about the responsibility of companies to train their workers and upgrade their skills, to fit them for new jobs as their old jobs disappear?" Reich has asked. "All over America, loyal employees who have put in 10, 20, 30 years are getting pink slips from companies that are doing well. [So] we have a moral responsibility to ask these questions. We must not be silent."

In the face of opposition from more conservative economic advisors to Clinton, Reich has coupled his passion for the issue with a cold-eyed political glint, arguing that it offers Clinton clear advantages.

"At some point a large number of Americans are going to vote in favor of economic policies that sacrifice growth to preserve their economic security," Reich has observed.

But so far, Clinton has mostly talked about the issue in sotto voce. Perhaps fearful of being identified with angry populists like Pat Buchanan, Clinton has indulged only in polite, Rotary Club-style comments on the need for corporations to be good neighbors.

In a March radio address, Clinton pulled his punches, saying that "business has a role to play if we want people to have better lives, provide for their families and face the future with confidence." But he quickly followed with lawyerly caution, saying that Americans must always remember that "the most fundamental responsibility for any business is to make a profit."

Such forgettable rhetoric is no match for the full-throated populism of Buchanan, who tapped into middle-class angst during the Republican primaries with jeremiads against the global economy. He blasted the inequities of a system that enriches executives and shareholders but not workers, and uttered words no other Republican would dare speak: He assigned blame to "the captains of corporate greed."

To the dismay of his more careful mainstream GOP rivals, Buchanan's message translated into lots of votes. His ability to rip off what once was purely a liberal issue is just as galling to Democrats.

"Whether we like it or not, we have to grudgingly acknowledge that Pat Buchanan deserves the credit for getting the media to focus on this issue," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

"Buchanan had the right diagnosis, but absolutely the wrong cure," added Democratic consultant James Carville, the architect of Clinton's 1992 campaign. "Buchanan struck a responsive chord even where you wouldn't expect it, among Republican primary voters."

So some Democratic strategists believe a more moderate, toned-down approach could help Clinton in a general election.

But Democrats wonder whether Clinton has the stomach for such a fight.

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