The 1980 presidential campaign is a hotbed of bold ideas.
You haven't noticed? Perhaps it's because you haven't heard enough about Ed Clark and Barry Commoner, two hard-working presidential candidates from national parties who are stumping the country with provocative and frankly radical proposals for reshaping the nation and its government.
You would have heard literally dozens of bold new ideas, for example, if you had joined the 550 people who turned out on a snowy night here this week to listen to Clark set forth the basic principle of his Libertarian Party: "Any government, including democracy, is an oppressive force."
"The other candidates want to cut the fat out of government," Clark said. "I want to cut the lean." First of all, he said, he would terminate "interventionist" foreign policy by bringing all U.S. troops and weapons home from overseas, abolishing the CIA and phasing out U.S. military aid to Israel, Japan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and everyone else.
The policy of "nonintervention" also would control government at home under a Libertarian administration, Clark said. All laws governing "victimless" social conduct would be repealed immediately -- including those dealing with prostitution, gambling, narcotics and gun ownership. Government would no longer police discrimination, pollution or wages and work conditions in the private sector. All government "subsidies" -- from corporate bailouts to farm price supports to Social Security -- would be phased out.
The fiscal result, Clark said, would be a $201 billion cut in federal spending "in the first year." That would permit elimination of all federal gift and inheritance taxes and a 50 percent cut in the personal income tax, according to his lengthy blueprint for the 1981 federal budget.
You could have heard some bold ideas based on quite different principles if you had joined the workers who talked to Citizens' Party candidate Barry Commoner at the Jeep plant in Toledo last week.
"The free enterprise system, largely, is a relic," Commoner said. "It's dying" -- and the only cure is massive government intervention.
Commoner told the Jeep workers that corporations have become so powerful that society as a whole must take over corporate decision-making. "We can no longer rely on the managers of a few huge corporations to decide what we can buy and what we must pay for it, or what kind of environment surrounds us," Commoner said. "These are social decisions that ought to be made . . . in city councils, in the state and national legisltures, in the voting booth."
Exhibit A in Commoner's case against the corporations was the automobile industry. "In the interest of short-term profit," the candidate told the auto workers, "Detroit gave us smog, dependence on foreign oil and a line of cars that couldn't compete even here in their own country."
This same resentment of corporate power is the reason that Commoner, like Clark, proposes big cuts in defense spending and a reduction of America's role overseas. "The reason for our whole military policy," he said in Toledo, "is that corporations force us into wars to protect their profits. We should risk nuclear war because some stockholders are worried about their dividends?"
And so it has gone this fall in Missoula, Toledo and hundreds of other cities coast to coast as Clark and Commoner bring the voters a kind of message rarely heard on the American political scene. And that, of course, is a basic purpose of both campaigns: to tell people who have lost faith in the centrist politics of the two major parties that there are alternatives available.
It is probably a measure of the dissatisfaction with the two big parties that this year three alternative candidates -- Clark, Commoner and independent John B. Anderson -- each have enough money to run serious national campaigns and sufficient support to get on enough state ballots to make it at least mathematically possible for any of the three to win.
Not that Clark or Commoner appreciates being lumped with Anderson. They consider the independent a figure of the "establishment" whose policies are merely a mesh of Republican and Democratic principles. Both are scornful of Anderson for running as an independent. "The only way to work a real change," Clark says, "is to build a new party, a permanent structure, that can catch and pass the other ones."
Creating a serious alternative is the goal both Clark's eight-year-old Libertarian Party and Commoner's new-born Citizens' Party have set for themselves this year. To do that, it would be an enormous boon for either to get 5 percent of the vote next Tuesday. Doing so makes a party eligible for about $3 million in public funds.
Commoner would use the money to build up his new party around the country and develop a coherent policy toward the full range of public issues. Clark, whose party already has a national network in place, and whose principles prevent his taking a federal subsidy, says he would probably burn the $3 million check on the steps of the Capitol -- an event that might get the Libertarians some television coverage for a change.
National media coverage -- that is the treasure both Clark and Commoner have searched for in vain all year. They have given as many speeches and issued as many white papers as Carter, Reagan and Anderson -- but have received a fraction of the attention. When the two men held a stimulating, lively debate at the start of the fall campaign, no networks and only two newspapers showed up to record the event.
Still, the dry, intense Clark, a 50-year-old lawyer who looks like, but isn't related to, television disc jockey Dick Clark, and the scrappy, sarcastic Commoner, a 63-year-old scholar and author, keep plugging away, hitting the Toledos and the Missoulas with their two-person entourages and drawing sizable crowds that seem to consist mainly of the radicalized middle class. The women wear non-designer jeans and no make-up; the men have bushy beards and Earth shoes.
If the audiences seem generally the same, it may be because Clark and Commoner, for all their differences, articulate the same core feeling -- that irresponsible, unaccountable powers are destroying the country. For Clark, the culprit is government. For Commoner, it is big business.
But both men indict the same pair of co-conspirators: the Republican and Democratic parties -- "Those wonderful people," Commoner says, "who gave us inflation, unemployment, Reagan and Carter."