LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Lloyd Bentsen : A Democratic Leader Who Sees Politics as a ‘Contact Sport’

<i> Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times. He interviewed the senator in his Capitol Hill office</i>

Who says there are no second acts in American lives? Lloyd Bentsen may be about to embark on his fourth.

As a young World War II veteran and son of a prosperous rancher, Bentsen was sent to Congress to represent the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas in 1948, the year Harry S. Truman was elected President. Bentsen served three terms and looked to be headed for a long career in Washington, when he surprisingly pulled down the curtain on politics and opened act two of his life. He retired from Congress in 1955, spending the next 15 years in Texas, building a large financial holding company and building a family with his wife, B.A.--they now have three grown children.

But he was also building a base with the reigning Democratic powers and, in 1970, he began his third act. As the candidate of the conservative Democratic Establishment, he ousted populist Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough in a slash-and-burn primary that some Texas liberals still have not forgiven him for; in November, he blew past a Texas Republican congressman named George Bush to win election to the Senate.


After only one term, Bentsen jumped into the 1976 Democratic presidential race. But his promise to bring government and business together excited no one other than the occasional political scientist. He soon withdrew.

It appeared that Bentsen’s ambitions had crested and there remained before him only the laborious accretion of power in the Senate. By the late 1980s, he had indeed become one of the most influential senators--chairman of the Finance Committee, an indefatigable defender of the oil industry and an inescapable presence on tax and trade concerns.

But then act four unexpectedly beckoned. Looking for reinforcement in the South, Michael S. Dukakis choose Bentsen as his running mate in 1988. If Dukakis demonstrated over the succeeding months that he was not ready for the big stage, Bentsen’s dignified, even seigneurial, performance propelled him back into the ranks of serious Democratic presidential contenders. At 69, the slim, erect, silver-haired Bentsen has improbably emerged as one of the hottest properties in a party desperate for leadership.

Bentsen is moderate in his politics and careful in his speech--he measures each word as it leaves his lips as if savoring a fine wine. As politicians go, Bentsen is not a cuddly figure. But he projects implacable stability. After the pratfalls of the past three presidential elections, that may be an alluring combination for many punch-drunk Democrats in 1992.

Question: In your speech at the Democratic Leadership Council meeting, you gave a stern critique of the way Bush is handling both foreign and domestic affairs. That kind of talk has been relatively rare during this Administration. There has been a lot of grumbling among Democratic activists at the grass-roots level that the Democrats in Washington are spooked by Bush’s popularity and are not being aggressive enough in taking him on. Has the Democratic leadership been too cautious?

Answer: No, I think that’s pretty well the pattern for a President coming in. He’s given a honeymoon period. There’s no question that the President’s polls are high. But that, I don’t think, misleads him any more than it misled Daniel Ortega, who was way out in front in the polls, or Mike Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen, who, in August of ’88, were way out in front in the polls. Those things can change overnight . . . .

The Republican Party is carrying a lot of the baggage of the past. You have the Cold War--for many Republicans it’s not over yet . . . . You’re seeing them walking away from a legacy that a Republican President--Eisenhower--left them on transportation. They have $10 billion there in the highway trust fund, and now they say, “Well, we’re gonna move that (responsibility) down to the state and local (levels)--raise your taxes.”

. . . . With the differences in the economies of the various states, you’re going to have a major disparity in how the (states) address the transportation system in the country . . . . I look at (Republican) policies on trade, and they’re acting as though we’re in the same position we were after World War II--the totally dominant economic power of the world. Now we have a lot of people out there who are tough competitors, former allies of ours. The challenge now is not tanks, but economic competition. And there’s much we have to do . . . . We have to get this deficit down. We have to increase incentives for savings in our country, like returning the Individual Retirement Account. We have to do more in the way of basic education--reading, writing and arithmetic.

Q: How optimistic are you that the budget talks will lead to a meaningful attack on the deficit?

A: Unfortunately, I am not too optimistic. There are some painful choices that have to be made, and the American people have not been advised by the President why he has called this summit and what he wants to do. He has stated that he thinks new tax revenues will be necessary, but . . . to make these tough choices, painful choices, the public has to understand the depths of the problem. The President has to exercise leadership. He has the bully pulpit, he has the media and he should show that leadership in advising the American people . . . .

Q: If the Republicans are still looking at the world of the past, and not dealing with the policy implications implicit in recent changes, to what extent is your own party beginning to formulate just what changes are implicit?

A: I think a good example of that was when I was the lead sponsor in the Senate pulling the trade bill. The Administration opposed that trade bill; (it) reluctantly came along in the end. But we did some things there to try to open up markets around the world . . . . In the Finance Committee, we’re doing a lot of oversight hearings concerning how they’re administering this trade act now . . . . We’re pushing to do more in education than this Administration is prepared to do. As far as health care, some of the things for pregnant woman, neonatal and prenatal health care--to try to save some of the emotional and physical damage that come from low-weight birth babies--that’s a positive thing that we’re doing.

Q: Let me go back to where you started. You said that economic competition is going to be more pressing than military competition in the ‘90s. How do you see our relationship with Japan evolving?

A: Well, I would hope we’d have much freer trade . . . . I’d be delighted if we would get the consumers in their country on our side. I’d like to see us sponsor full-page ads in the Tokyo newspaper, with a supermarket ad on the price of groceries in our country, whether it was beef or rice, and (show) where they’re paying almost six times as much for rice as we are . . . . I think we’d have them marching on the Diet.

Q: There’s large Japanese investment here. Should we be worried about it?

A: Well, we have to have foreign capital coming in, particularly when we have such an enormous budget deficit. We have no choice. What we have to do is aggressively cut that deficit; that’d be the biggest savings of all, get our interest rates down (to) where we’re more competitive.

Q: To the extent that Japanese companies are coming here, particularly in the auto industry, opening plants, doing well, taking away market share from the big three U.S. producers, is that something we ought to be concerned about as a matter of public policy?

A: In the short run, it’s not a problem. In the long run, it can be a problem. They are still taking a very high percentage of their components as imports from Japan and from some of their other satellite plants in other countries. And in the long run, that means a flow of dividends going back to Japan.

Q: What is your feeling about the recent trade agreement reached with Japan? Is this likely to lead to a major reduction in the chronic trade deficit?

A: I seriously doubt that . . . . I have some concern about trying to tell another country what it should do as far as its own culture and its own domestic economic concerns, and, in turn, their trying to tell us. That, I think, results in an awful lot of smoke and mirrors. I want something substantive that results in better numbers with them.

Q: Moving off Japan, but sticking with the subject of how the changing world may be changing our politics. What kind of peace dividend ought we to expect in this next decade? Is it going to be substantial?

A: It’s going to be substantial--and it should be substantial. The Administration’s been behind the curve on that. They have not adjusted, to the extent they should, their evaluation of whatever the potential threat might be. The first priority of that peace dividend ought to be cutting down that deficit. And the next priority ought to be education in our country. Those things working together will be a great help to us.

Q: There have been some defense experts who have talked about as large as a 50% cut--

A: Oh, I think ultimately that’s . . . possible . . . but I don’t think that is probable. And I question that it is desirable. It depends very much on what future events are, how they will play out. We don’t know yet what is going to happen in Russia . . . . I would certainly hope we could get something along the lines of a third out of the defense budget over the next 10 years--and that would mean a $100-billion peace dividend.

Q: The DLC--on the same weekend as the Democratic National Committee--endorsed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s plan to cut Social Security taxes. That plan has been much more coolly received by the party’s legislative leaders, yourself included. Is there a conflict between governing and developing an opposition strategy to the Bush Administration?

A: Well, there will always be some partisanship, but my primary concern on that one is ensuring the safety of the Social Security fund. I think that Sen. Moynihan served an excellent purpose in unmasking this charade of using the Social Security surplus for financing the deficit. He did that in a way that dramatized it, and that served a purpose.

Q: The other issue that he raised, of course, was that the tax code in many respects has become more regressive over the last decade.

A: Well, several of us have raised that point . . . . Because of the payroll tax, why, the tax of middle-income people has gone up, where the tax for the top fifth highest-income members has gone down.

Q: Is that something that has to be dealt with, if not through the Moynihan proposal, then by other means?

A: Ultimately, it has to be dealt with. You can’t let that continue to happen.

Q: What are your ideas other than cutting the payroll tax?

A: I’m not about to get into that kind of a debate at the moment. That’s part of negotiations . . . . There are many ways you could go at it. You could do it through personal exemptions.

Q: There’s been a lot of speculation about whether you might decide to seek the Presidency in ’92. You have said you have no plans.

A: Absolutely.

Q: If you were to decide to run, when would you have to decide by?

A: I really haven’t worried too much about that. I don’t see that there’s any great desire for a long campaign this time. I think that by some time this fall, certainly, candidates who are serious about it ought to be evidencing that interest publicly.

Q: There are people who want you to run. What would be the factors in your decision?

A: Well, I’m the happy man now, and I’m comfortable with myself, and I thoroughly enjoy my family, and so that would weigh very heavily . . . . And I’m in a position to help make a difference, chairing the Finance Committee. The next couple of years are very critical years for the country. I’d be concerned about not being able to devote the time to this job that I think is important.

Q: Some people have taken the fact that you rejoined a number of private clubs you quit during the campaign, clubs that are all-white, as a sign that you were not going to run in 1992.

A: Well, that would not worry me. I resigned from those clubs in deference to a fellow who was at the head of the ticket. But my stand on civil rights is so strong, I wouldn’t worry about private clubs. I’m a fellow who, way back there in 1949, voted to do away with the poll tax. That was an unheard-of vote for a fellow from Texas in those days. I think in the whole delegation only two of us did that. And I’m a fellow whose company owned the first hotel of any size that was integrated in Houston, Tex.--and called up the manager of the chain and recommended we do that. So I can go through a whole list of that type of thing.

Q: You’ve been in politics a long time. What did you learn in the ’88 campaign--that difficult and bruising campaign? Did that teach you any new lessons?

A: Just reinforced what I already knew. And that was that down in my country, politics is a contact sport. If someone takes you on, you better reply. If they charge you with something that’s just not true, then you can’t leave it hanging out there. You have to refute it.

Q: What you’re saying is the Democratic Party has to do a little bit more of that, especially on the question of its values?

A: Absolutely.