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Clark Lays Out Plan to Spur Economy

Democratic candidate's first domestic initiative seeks new spending for homeland security and aid to states. He would end some Bush tax cuts.

September 25, 2003|Ronald Brownstein and Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, offering the first significant domestic policy initiative of his presidential campaign, proposed Wednesday to reinvigorate the economy with substantial new spending on homeland security and aid to states, and tax incentives for businesses to hire new workers.

Clark said he would cover his plan's $100-billion cost by repealing the portions of President Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that benefit taxpayers earning $200,000 a year or more.

The plan positions Clark near the ideological center of the Democratic field, committing him to greater amounts of new spending on homeland security than most of his rivals and a more limited rollback of Bush's tax cut than some of the more liberal candidates have urged. But, overall, the ideas he proposed fit well within the range of priorities already established by the leading contenders in the race.

More distinctly, Clark also advanced what is emerging as a centerpiece of his nascent campaign: a call for "a new American patriotism" that he defined as "speaking out, questioning authority and holding your leaders accountable," even during wartime.

In sharp words, Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander, said his 34-year Army career gave him unique credentials to make the Democratic case against President Bush on both domestic and foreign policy.

"I have led men into combat, faced enemy fire, and have been wounded and come home on a stretcher," he said. "I can stand up to the people who believe that if you don't like their views, you can't love your country. I can reclaim the mantle of patriotism for those who care for their country and don't care for the policies of this president."

Clark's staff did not announce the speech until late Tuesday afternoon, and the hurried arrangements may have reflected his desire to unveil his jobs plan before the 10 Democratic presidential contenders debate economic issues in New York today.

Only about two dozen people turned up to hear Clark's remarks -- roughly as many as the number of reporters who gathered at the remote East River Park in Lower Manhattan under brilliant morning sunshine. The small crowd included supporters who held signs reading "Wes Wing" and "Silver Star v. Silver Spoon" -- a comparison between Clark's military medals and Bush's privileged background.

Clark, who shot to the lead among the Democratic contenders in two national polls released over the last week, delivered a bristling indictment of Bush's economic record.

Citing the increase in the number of Americans in poverty and the loss of more than 3 million private-sector jobs since Bush took office, Clark declared: "Three years ago, we were told we were getting a compassionate conservative. Instead, what we got were massive tax cuts for the rich, staggering deficits for the country and the worst job losses since the Great Depression."

He added: "That's not compassionate, nor conservative; it's heartless, it's reckless, and it's wrong."

The speech drew fire from two directions for its similarities to the statements of the broad priorities of other contenders.

Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Clark's proposals represented "a classic tax-and-spend liberal economic plan."

She added, "If Wesley Clark had told us he was for tax increases and big government programs earlier, we could have told him he was a Democrat long before he announced it himself."

Meanwhile, Robert Gibbs, the press secretary for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, said Clark's plan tracked closely the proposals Kerry has already issued. It is "probably no surprise that a newly minted Democrat with no experience in domestic policy would unveil an economic plan that is most notable for its similarity to the plans of others in this race," Gibbs said.

In his remarks, Clark proposed to spend $100 billion over the next two years to "directly fund job creation in a fiscally responsible way."

He said he would spend $40 billion over the next two years to train emergency personnel to respond to terrorist attacks, fortify the capacity of hospitals to deal with biological or chemical attacks, expand the Coast Guard and the Customs Service and undertake construction projects to improve security at bridges, ports and tunnels.

The other Democratic contenders also want to spend more on homeland security, but Clark's $40-billion "Homeland and Economic Security Fund" is significantly larger than most of his rivals have urged.

The closest may be Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has called for a one-year, $16-billion increase.

Clark also said that over the next two years he would provide fiscally strapped states a total of $40 billion in new federal aid: $20 billion for education and training, $10 billion to fund health care for low-income families and $10 billion to meet other "pressing needs," such as law enforcement and social services.

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