The most important debate at the Democatic National Convention was centered just where it should have been -- on the economy.
It boiled down to one question: Should we develop a plan for real economic growth with wage and price stability and a policy for full employment, or should we continue the pursuit of military "superiority" while the economy descends into the abyss of inflation and recession?
Unfortunately, the debate was obscured by the drama between the Kennedy and Carter forces. They engaged in a prime-time argument over short-term economic policy, and then abruptly ended the exchange in sweet compromise.
Meanwhile, there was a serious but little-noticed discussion of economic priorities and military spending policy, as symbolized by the proposed MX missile system. The MX would be a kind of moon-shot spectacular, featuring nuclear-armed rockets scurrying around on railroad tracks in the deserts of Utah and Nevada.
This scheme supposedly would bolster our confidence in our ability to destroy the world better than the Russians can. It would also siphon billions of additional dollars for the defense establishment -- dollars that most Democrats agree are badly needed for jobs and human services. Delegates on the convention floor waved signs inscribed "MX -- Mighty Expensive."
Speaking for the anti-MX plank at the convention, Oregon Democratic chairman Bill Smith emphasized that the MX dispute was not a fight between Carter and Kennedy partisans. "I am a loyal Carter delegate," he said, "and I am here because I see the country I love about to make a tremendous mistake" -- namely, to go ahead with the massive MX project.
Given the choice between $12 billion targeted to create new jobs and productivity, and similar appropriation for new bombers and missiles, there is no doubt where the nation's majors, the black delegates or the schoolteachers' convention bloc would have lined up.
The Carter administration, long since commited to the new missile system, decided to keep the MX in the platform. But there was a clear consensus among Carter and Kennedy supporters alike that the United States has to develop a policy of economic growth and stability -- and that we can't afford to squander resources on Pentagon wish lists.
To get an idea of the kind of economy we need, we might look at some of the European countries. While we allocate additional billions of dollars to our arsenals around the world, the Europeans are directing their attention to economic revitalization.
Sweden and West Germany appear to be winning the battle against inflation.
They resist expanded military commitments. They have declined to use wage and price controls, tax cuts and high interest rates in their policies on inflation and employment.
Instead, they are patiently constructing a social contract among labor, business and government. They have undertaken large-scale training and retraining of the unemployment for specific growth industries.
Most European countries no longer debate whether or not they should plan and target growth. They discuss how to do the planning. And the planning definitely excludes ruinous, inflationary spending on armaments.
The Democrats at the convention were clearly interested in working on some new approaches to economic policy. The administration's National Accord is a first step toward labor-business-goverrnment cooperation. The Humphrey-Hawkins Act points toward a full-employment economy, and there is a general agreement that we need reindustrialization.
New hardware projects like the MX missile do nothing for U.S. economic security. Neither can we countenance new military ventures. The bombs of Vietnam, we should remember, caused an explosion of inflation and unemployment in our cities here at home.
There was healthy dialogue on the economy during the Democratic convention.
The most serious discussions were obscured by the exigencies of television ratings and the drama of personal political rivalries. But the dialogue has begun.