Pundits are complaining about the surplus of Democratic presidential candidates. The South Carolina debate brought the predictable judgement of "not ready for prime time." But our view of the debate was that any of the nine Democratic candidates would make a better president than George W. Bush -- if the Dems get their act together.
The scouting report suggests that Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Dick Gephardt will compete for the progressive populist/New Deal wing of the Democratic Party. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean will pitch for the anti-war center/left but needs to loosen up. John Edwards, the North Carolina senator from South Carolina, showed he can talk the populist talk, as a trial lawyer who is unafraid to take on big corporations, pharmaceutical companies and HMOs, but he hasn't gotten much past sound bites so far. Sen. John Kerry showed he can hit but needs to work on the charisma thing. Sen. Joe Lieberman showed a sense of humor to go with his center-righteous politics. Sen. Bob Graham was amiable and appeared to be running mainly for vice president. Carol Braun, the former Illinois senator, made a good impression, if you were unaware of some of the disastrous personal choices that led to her 1998 re-election defeat. Al Sharpton (we suspend the use of the honorific "reverend" during political campaigns), showed he has talent to become the Alan Keyes of the Democratic race.
John Harwood, political editor of the Wall Street Journal, wrote on the eve of the debate that Kucinich, Braun and Sharpton had no good reason to be included. That says more about the poor quality of political journalism than it does about the quality of the candidates. If Sharpton, the candidate with the weakest resume, by some miracle wins the nomination he would still compare favorably with the Rolodex Cowboy from Crawford, Texas. Sharpton, like Bush, has made questionable statements in order to fan self-serving conflicts, but as far as we know Sharpton never deserted a military unit during time of war, so the gentleman from New York gets the nod.
Ready or not, the 2004 campaign season has started. If you want to promote progressive populist issues in the Democratic presidential campaign, support Gephardt (www.dickgephardt2004.com, phone 202-448-9300) or Kucinich (www.kucinich.us, phone 866-413-3664). Your choice probably will depend on whether or not you thought the war in Iraq was a good idea. Even if you think Dean, Kerry or Edwards would make a better nominee next year, if you want to hear those candidates address a progressive agenda, work to make sure Kucinich and Gephardt remain in the debates.
Health care got some welcome attention in the debate. Max Sawicky, the friendly progressive populist economist, provided a useful examination of the health care proposals at (www.maxspeak.org/gm). He noted that with 40-something-million Americans lacking health insurance and tens of millions more underinsured, there are basically two ways to go. Gephardt builds upon the existing system wherein health insurance for workers and their families is provided by employers. Kucinich would use a payroll tax to expand Medicare, the national single-payer system for seniors, to cover all Americans. Dean, attempting to split the difference, would expand Medicaid to children and young adults under the age of 23, add a prescription drug benefit for the elderly within Medicare and offer coverage to others with subsidies to businesses and individuals so workers could obtain health insurance "in the market."
Gephardt would offer a 60% tax credit for health insurance and pay for it by repealing the 2001 tax cut for the wealthy. Sawicky noted that if a business pays 35% corporate income tax, a dollar spent on health care costs 65 cents. Under Gephardt's plan a dollar spent on health insurance costs the firm only 40 cents.
John Edwards took pot shots at the Gephardt plan as a big transfer of tax dollars from the pockets of working families to the nasty corporations, with the sound bite, "You're in good hands with Enron." As Sawicky noted, "If you reject socialized medicine, the only way to provide group insurance is through employers. The only way they will do that is with financial incentives, or if they are forced to do it. Is Edwards prepared to support the latter? Don't hold your breath." Edwards says he is for universal coverage, but doesn't say how he would get there.
Joe Lieberman said he would not raise taxes to pay for health coverage and charged that Gephardt would take money out of the Social Security Trust Fund. Sawicky says the opposite is the case. "Providing a tax cut to corporations would increase taxable income, in some combination, to workers and business firms."
Kerry's health care plan apparently consists mainly of providing a "Patient's Bill of Rights," which Sawicky noted is no help if you have no coverage, since then you will have no rights. Lieberman, Braun, Graham, and Sharpton also apparently lack plans for covering the prime-age uninsured.
George W. Bush and the Republican Party have made it an article of faith that tax cuts to the wealthy will stimulate the economy. They ignore the fact that we are in a recession because businesses cannot sell the products that already are in their inventories. Until that capacity is relieved, you can't expect businesses to expand.
Harry K. Schwartz, a former corporate lawyer who served in the Carter administration, wrote in The Hill on May 7 that bigger corporations that traditionally declare dividends will be the winners under Bush's proposal to make corporate dividends tax-free. Smaller corporations who reinvest their earnings in new technologies and expansion will feel more pressure to pay dividends instead. "If you were trying to design an anti-stimulus package for a no-growth economy, this would be a good way to go about it," he wrote.
The best way to stimulate the economy would be for Congress to divert the money Bush wants to throw at the wealthy and instead send it to workers, small businesses and state and local governments who need billions of dollars to maintain health, education and welfare programs. Democrats are on the right track with their proposal for a wage tax credit of $300 per family member, up to $1,200 per family, a small business tax credit for health insurance premiums, aid to state and local governments and extension of jobless benefits.
In Texas, Bush as governor cut taxes for the wealthy during times of plenty and pushed more responsibility onto city and county governments. Now that the state faces a $10 billion shortfall, Republicans have ruled out any tax increases. To make up that gap, Texas lawmakers plan draconian cuts, including 250,000 children from the Children's Health Insurance Program. If that program is cut back, not only must working poor parents fret about how they will pay for their children's needed health care; nurses, doctors and other health care professionals will be laid off at clinics, hospitals and nursing homes. Families USA estimates that the Democrats' proposed $18 billion temporary increase in Medicaid payments to states over the next year would create -- or preserve from state budget cuts -- at least 268,000 jobs, largely in the health care delivery sector.
Texas bases its estimates of future prison needs on the number of students who flunk standardized tests in the third grade. Like the adage says, you can pay now or you can pay later -- good schools and jobs now in the inner cities as well as the suburbs or more guards and more cells in the boondocks. Unfortunately, new prisons are represented by the prison industry as promising more jobs in depressed rural areas. We still think we can do better by diverting those future prisoners into more productive pursuits when they are in the school system and developing rural communities in other ways. -- JMC