Well, we finally have the possibility of a pretty good economic debate in the country this year. Not between Michael Dukakis and George Bush - they are both still managing to keep the details of their economic policies, if any, a closely held national secret - but between Dukakis and his bizarrely mismatched choice as a running mate, Lloyd Bentsen.
Were it not for the fact that the U.S. vice presidency is the silliest non-job ever created outside the Teamsters Union, the chance of a genuinely healthy economic debate at the topmost levels of government might be upon us at last. For Bentsen does not just differ with his new boss on a dazzling array of spending and taxing issues, but does so with a knowledge and authority rare on either side of the aisle.Years before Bentsen became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he had acquired a bipartisan reputation as an experienced businessman with a practical grasp of how the economy actually functions. Such skills are almost illegal in Washington.
As long ago as 1974, as my guest on television, Bentsen spoke out eloquently and presciently on issues that still leave most of his party (and the nation) in a fog of confusion. He called, for example, for reducing the capital gains tax - a goal given lukewarm support this year by Bush, and spurned thoroughly by Dukakis and Jesse Jackson.
Bentsen understood, then and now, that all the "compassionate" talk in the world about better jobs and higher living standards is empty if we don't strengthen the machinery that promotes savings and investment.
Hence he favored the elimination of one of the greatest continuing inequities in the tax code - the limitation on the deductibility of capital losses, though gains are 100 percent taxed - and he later was bright enough to grasp, as few in Congress did, that the 1986 tax "reform" was a largely retrograde step.
Now that even those most taken in by the shills for that bill are having to admit that it turned out to be just another Washington tax increase, Bentsen's words are especially worth heeding. "There's no question," he told me last year, that it was "not a bill that would encourage savings."
Bentsen, in fact, would appear to favor the reality - as opposed to the misleading hype - of a tax cut, just as he did the only time Ronald Reagan got one, in 1981. Bentsen certainly would not favor, as so many in his party appear to, raising the newly lowered tax rates that were the one genuine advance in the 1986 law.
Indeed, the senator told me bluntly that any such rate increase was "the last thing that should be considered."
Other specific Bentsen economic views:
- He favors a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget and a tax on imported oil, both of which Dukakis opposes.
- He strongly opposes the protectionist ideas of Rep. Richard Gephardt (with which Dukakis has intermittently been flirting), telling me revealingly that the Democrats should not be "looking for just a political issue in 1988."
- He is wary of the demands for legislative action against what Jackson calls "merger maniacs," arguing that it is "difficult to write a piece of legislation that's going to apply uniformly to all types of acquisitions and mergers."
In short, while Bentsen is no laissez-faire "supply-sider," or even as untrammeled an advocate of free markets as Bush, the Texas Democrat's views are a long way from the "populist" oratory that dominated his party's primaries.
He is shaped by his own experiences: a World War II hero who became at 27 the youngest member of Congress, then voluntarily left politics to make his fortune, becoming the millionaire head of a financial holding company, Lincoln Consolidated. When he returned, he knew far more about the way the world really works than most other politicians then - or now.
At 67, Lloyd Bentsen is unlikely to threaten his party's future aspirants for the presidency, and history suggests that the free-spending Massachusetts governor with whom he is running will just listen politely and go his own way. Meanwhile, though, how fascinating it is, even for a little while, to have someone on a national ticket who knows more about economics than the slogans.