Giving business the business

Posted: May 04, 2004 12:00 AM

 A man whose wife is worth an estimated half billion bucks probably can't be considered a glittering-eyed enemy of raw accumulation. And yet it's fun watching John Kerry wriggle to reposition himself as "a business-friendly moderate" (in The Wall Street Journal's words) -- never mind all that primary-season talk about "Benedict Arnold CEOs" and "tax cuts for the wealthy."

 Kerry advised the Journal he is integrating the investment guru Warren Buffett and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs into his campaign. And he praises Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. And mentions that he plans to slash the deficit. And he loves free trade, yeah, boy. And so on.

 He has his work cut out for him. The Journal notes that his call for rolling back part of the Bush tax cut "would raise taxes on families making more than $200,000 a year and block estate-tax repeal, both steps that would hit top executives hard. His long backing of environmental and labor causes has left him with a lifetime rating of 35 percent from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce."

 So the big test for candidate Kerry: Make some businessmen believe in him somewhat. Enough at least to offset in some degree the Bush campaign's 3.5-1 advantage over the Kerry campaign in fund raising from business.

 It's do-able, "pro-business" being a designation often most visible in the beholder's eye. Businessmen can be as nutty and off the reservation as, well, as journalists.

 Warren Buffett, for instance, hero to those investors he has helped enrich, makes headlines with calls for higher taxes on himself -- and, by implication, these same investors. The even-richer George Soros is pouring millions into anti-Bush committees and organizations. Personally laid-back high-tech types like Steve Jobs tend to distrust the president's evangelical religion and to deplore his stands on social issues like abortion.

 Nor do all big-business types by any means espouse free enterprise and competition. Many, as it happens, prefer the cozy insider deals that government regulation makes possible.

 Thus, when a candidate not necessarily famous for deep commitment to the marketplace surrounds himself with "businessmen," the onlooker is well advised to inquire: "What kind of businessmen?" Not necessarily the kind who link business success with a climate of freedom -- economic, moral or both.

 Nonetheless, John Kerry, with his "Benedict .Arnold" line, could have made you wonder whether he was proposing to hang the CEOs (always nameless) for treason. And it made you wonder about something a little more profound -- namely, how the Democratic Party, whose anointed leader Kerry has become, let things get to this pass. Why, that is, must Democratic presidential contenders always have to muss up the business community?

 Negativism about business and enterprise is a Democratic trait becoming more engrained all the time. Key Democratic constituencies seem to demand it: the academic-media constituency, which sees businessmen as uneducated rubes, and the labor constituency, which sees business as a race of union-busting oppressors whom you can't trust an inch.

 How do you get the presidential nod from such a party? For one thing, you bust business at every opportunity. In making economic proposals, you remember to play down individual creativity and initiative and play up regulatory control. You suggest that basically the only way to make business do what's right is to twirl a federal club over its head.

 The Democratic Party isn't expressly or even inferentially socialist. And yet it can communicate anti-business rage or indignation in a way that says to businessmen and to those whose livelihoods depend on a healthy business climate: Uh-oh, trouble.

 Thus, we come at this stage in the campaign to John Kerry, realizing that, having effectively copped the Democratic nomination, he won't be elected by angry Democrats alone. Out he must reach, speaking to business -- for instance -- the language that soothes instead of inflames. It falls nicely on the ear, John. But take my advice, and talk fast.