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CLINTON OFFERS PLACEBO, BUCHANAN POISON

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When Bob Dole attacked corporate down-sizing and stagnant wages in his first major New Hampshire speech after the Iowa caucuses, he was more than acknowledging Pat Buchanan nipping at his heels. He was ratifying, on behalf of the establishment, the proposition of both the Clintonite left and the Buchananite right that the central problem facing America today is the economic distress of what Robert Reich calls "the anxious class," the less skilled economic have-nots who are losing ground and jobs in a competitive global economy.

Who says we don't have real choices this election year? Three starkly different answers to this problem are on the table.Clinton presents the classic, progressive-Democrat answer: more government programs to increase "human capital," meaning more "investments" in education and job training. The ideal is "lifetime learning" to keep U.S. worker skills ahead of the rest of the world.

There are two problems with this approach. First, studies of government retraining programs show very little impact on wages. Second, no one will buy it. I don't know about you, but my happiest day was the day I wrote my last med school exam. Lifetime learning? Learning for pleasure, sure. But slogging through manuals at night to keep ahead of Malaysian textile workers by day? I can't wait to tell my 10-year-old that my early estimates were off - he's got 55 more years of school ahead of him.

Star-of-the-day Pat Buchanan offers a second, rather more aggressive approach to the "anxious class" problem, an approach as sweeping and coherent as it is primitive: Blame foreigners.

Buchanan's entire economic policy flows from the proposition that foreigners - aided, of course, by an American Fifth Column of bankers, big-business men, financiers and pointy-headed internationalists - are the source of our sorrows. Hence the three targets of his "conservatism of the heart":

1. Immigrants - swarming across the border, stealing our jobs, living in lassitude off our generous social services. Solution? A "double-link security fence" and five years of zero legal immigration.

2. Free trade - cheap foreign goods and cheap foreign labor overseas drawing away American capital and jobs, allowing worker-bee foreigners to undermine the American dream. Solution? Shut the doors with high tariffs, and especially punitive ones for selected Asians.

3. The "New World Order" - needy, entangling allies parasitically living off our military protection and foreign aid, eating our resources and diminishing our economic prospects. Solution? Cut them off. Come home, America.

Nativism, protectionism, isolationism. Not exactly liberty, equality, fraternity. But certainly more tempting than "lifetime learning" - and vastly more dangerous. The Clinton-Reich solution for the "anxious class" is a placebo. Buchanan's is poison.

Immigrants, legal and not, are hardly the lazy louts of Buchanan's imagination. Funny, isn't it, how Buchanan's foreigners are worker bees abroad, then turn suddenly into welfare-mooching sloths as soon as they emigrate to America? In fact, their extraordinary industriousness makes them now, as in the past, a net plus for the American economy.

Protectionism, especially Buchanan's wildly radical variant, is the surest road to national, and indeed, international penury.

And Buchanan's isolationism is simply an act of surrender of everything won in the Cold War by, among others, his alleged mentors Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. We have achieved the dream of every great power - safety and prosperity through global dominance - and Buchanan would throw it away because he cowers before such paper tigers as the W.T.O. and the United Nations.

If not Buchanan's isolationism, if not Clinton's retraining, what then is to be done for the vulnerable little guy?

Start with honesty. Admit that no one has any idea what is the ultimate cause of our stagnant median wage. There are a dozen different theories, and no good governmental solution. But, while we don't know how to raise wages, we do know how to the raise the amount the worker actually takes home: cut taxes.

This is the hole card for any presidential candidate situated between Buchanan and Clinton. Forbes vastly overplayed the hand with a flat tax, actually a massive supply-side tax cut, promising a free lunch for all. The mainstream Republican message since the 1994 election has been tax cuts balanced by spending cuts.

Forbes has ridiculed the Gingrich Congress' pursuit of a balanced budget by saying that it is only a means to an end. Well, yes. And the end is this: More take-home pay for the average worker - without bankrupting the Treasury.

Balanced tax cuts present the best way for Dole or Alexander to compete in addressing the "anxious class." No need for mainstream conservatives to pander the issue or duck it. Embrace it.

It has more appeal than Clinton's dreary retraining because a tax cut works and works immediately. And it trumps Buchanan's dark, defeatist, kick-the-foreigner answer because Americans are smarter, better, less timid than he imagines.

Or are we?