Salient Issues

by Joseph Perkins, columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. This article appeared in the Washington Times on 3/6/96, page A15, and is posted here with permission from the author.

Like Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1976, Pat Buchanan has become the conservative bogeyman of the 1996 presidential race. Unless he is stopped in his tracks, warns the Washington political establishment (which includes Democrats and not a few Republicans), he would transform America into a Fourth Reich.

Now I do not count myself among the ranks of Buchanan supporters. And I remain convinced that Bob Dole is the far more electable presidential candidate (notwithstanding his lackluster showing so far in the GOP primaries).

But I don't think Mr. Buchanan is the racist, the sexist, the xenophobe he is made out to be. And I think he raises issues that are salient not only to his ardent supporters, but also to the majority of Americans.

Take the issue of job insecurity, which Mr. Buchanan has seized upon. In just the past three years, corporate America has given nearly 1.5 million well-compensated workers the heave-ho. Such corporate bloodletting would be understandable if the U.S. economy was in the throes of recession and companies were drowning in a sea of red ink.

But the economy has been growing -- however anemically -- for the past three years. And most of the Fortune 500 corporations that have announced the biggest layoffs since 1993 are racking up profits; these include AT&T, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Raytheon and Wal-Mart.

Most free market economic types (with whom I agree on most counts) would argue that what these corporate employers do is their business and that the government should butt out . But the government provides corporate America all sorts of tax breaks and tax subsidies (some call it corporate welfare).

So, as long as Washington is using the tax code to benefit certain industries, as long as Uncle Sam is contributing billions of tax dollars to corporate coffers each year, why is it such a bad thing for the government to offer favorable tax consideration to employers who retain workers?

Candidate Buchanan has also struck a chord with many Americans when he questions our absolutist trade policy. Indeed, even those of us who support free trade, who endorsed both the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North America Free Trade Agreement, have to question out loud whether some of our foreign trading partners are taking advantage of our Yankee largess.

Just this week, in fact, the Commerce Department reported that the U.S. trade deficit rose to $111 billion in 1995, the worst showing in seven years. This troubling development is attributable mainly to America's growing trade imbalance with both China and Mexico.

The trade gap between the United States and China has widened to $33.8 billion last year, a 15 percent increase from 1994. This owes to beijing's deliberate mercantilist trade policy toward the United States. It imposes every conceivable trade barrier to protect its markets from U.S. goods and services. Meanwhile, it exploits our wide open American market.

Mexico ran up a $15.4 billion trade surplus with the United States last year, after running a small $1.3 billion deficit to its generous neighbor to the north in 1994. That's because Mexican exports to the United States rose nearly 25 percent last year, while the goods and services it imported from the United States fell 9 percent.

This complete reversal in the U.S.-Mexico balance of trade is tied to the collapse of the peso in December 1994. So, then, U.S. taxpayers not only contributed $20 billion toward the Mexican bailout, they indirectly contributed another $15 billion in the way of a trade deficit.

Mr. Buchanan would slap a 40 percent tariff on Chinese-made goods and repeal the NAFTA treaty with Mexico and Canada. While such proposals get the goat of free trade types (with whom I agree on most counts), most Americans would agree that the United States needs to stop being a trade patsy to countries that run up huge surpluses at our expense.

Immigration is another of Mr. Buchanan's pet issues. Among other things, he would build a 200-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to staunch illegal immigration and would seek a five year moratorium on legal immigration.

Mr. Buchanan's prescriptions are heresy to pro-immigration types who maintain, as an article of faith, that immigration is a boon to the United States. But while that almost certainly was the case during previous waves on immigration (at the turn of the century and following World War II), the benefits of immigration are not so clear-cut nowadays.

The primary reason is that far too many legal and illegal immigrants view America as a welfare state, as opposed to a land of opportunity. Illegal immigrants know they can steal across the U.S. border and receive free education and medical care. Legal immigrants (particularly the older and infirm) know that the moment they set foot on U.S. soil the are eligible for Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid.

The immigration problem can be solved without a fence or a moratorium. Just make noncitizens ineligible for taxpayer handouts unless they are legal and have resided in this country at least seven years.

Admire Pat Buchanan or despise him, but give the devil his due. Hes the one presidential hopeful who's identified issues that hit home with most Americans. Whether Mr. Buchanan ultimately mounts a strong challenge to Mr. Dole for the GOP nomination remains to be seen. But the issues of job insecurity, trade and immigration will not go away.

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