Paul Tsongas' Call to Economic Arms

In launching his longshot candidacy in Lowell on April 30, 1991[1], former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas declared, "I offer a different path: harder but more hopeful.  Longer but more compelling.  Steeper but more worthy."  For the next four months, Tsongas was a lonely voice on the campaign trail as potential Democratic candidates wavered in the face of President Bush's popularity.

Predictions in the media were that Tsongas' campaign would fold by June, then by July and then that it would not survive until Labor Day.  It held together throughout 1991 because it was more of an informal group committed to Tsongas' ideas than a traditional campaign.  The "book"--the issues defined in Tsongas' 86-page booklet "A Call To Economic Arms: Forging A New American Mandate"--provided a solid foundation as Tsongas traveled around the country speaking to small groups. 

Tsongas had a steep hill to climb.  The Democrats' 1988 experience with Michael Dukakis had made them wary of Greeks from Massachusetts, and it did not seem likely that his low-key style and bland persona would inspire voters.  He had not run for office in fourteen years.  He had recovered from a life-threatening bout with lymphoma, but the health question remained in some people's minds.  Tsongas' first ad sought to allay health concerns.  The ad, which aired in New Hampshire, Boston and Maine starting November 22, showed him doing laps in a pool.  By the end of 1991, eight months into his campaign, Tsongas appeared to have made little headway [2].
Nonetheless, it was no trouble to drive into neighboring New Hampshire and campaign.  The energy and enthusiasm of the small group working in New Hampshire provided a boost, and Tsongas approached the task with a dry, self-deprecating humor.  Describing himself as an "economic Paul Revere," Tsongas presented himself as a "pro-business liberal" concerned with "expanding the economic pie."  In "A Call To Economic Arms" he defined the restoration of America's competitive manufacturing base as "the issue," and detailed a host of ideas to address this concern.  In his speeches, he offered his "economic truths" in lieu of traditional Democratic "twinkie economics" and "lollipop promises."  "I'm no Santa Claus," he stated.

About two weeks out from the New Hampshire primary, benefiting from a solid organization, strong advertising, and Clinton's troubles, Tsongas gathered momentum.  On February 18 he finished first with 33 percent of the vote, although Clinton achieved a measure of victory by declaring himself the "comeback kid."

Tsongas next had to prove that he was not just a regional candidate.  His campaign expanded rapidly and the paid staff doubled in a matter of weeks.  There were growing pains.  The number of checks coming into the Boston headquarters proved overwhelming.  The candidate now traveled on chartered airplanes, which meant a more regimented schedule and had a "cocoon effect."

For the Junior Tuesday contests on March 3 Tsongas concentrated on Maryland, where he achieved a 41 percent showing.  In Georgia he came in second.  "A funny thing happened on the way to oblivion.  The message took hold," Tsongas said.  Still some Democrats considered him unelectable or "not presidential."  The New York Times' Richard L. Berke wrote, "Mr. Tsongas will always look more like a math teacher than a would-be President."[3]

Many in the media now saw the contest as a two-man race between Tsongas and Clinton.  As the dynamics changed, the tone became increasingly negative, particularly in Florida, where the two engaged in their first head-to-head match-up.  The rhetoric and ad campaign became heated; on March 6 Tsongas campaign began running an ad in Florida in which the narrator stated, "Some people will say anything to be elected President."  On March 10 Super Tuesday, Clinton swept the South, including the big prizes of Florida (50.8% to 34.8%) and Texas (65.6% to 19.2%), while Tsongas managed wins in his home state of Massachusetts and in Rhode Island. 

The campaign headed into what Tsongas described as neutral ground--the March 17 contests in the key states of Illinois and Michigan.  Tsongas finished second in Illinois (26 percent) and a distant third in Michigan with only 17 percent.

At a March 19 news conference, Tsongas suspended his campaign because of a lack of resources.  The campaign was $400,000 to $500,000 in debt.  From the outset Tsongas had refused to accept PAC contributions.  While he did significant fundraising among Greek-Americans, some had been by discouraged by the Dukakis experience.  Most damaging, however, was the fact that Tsongas' chief fundraiser had been stealing money from the campaign; this only came to public attention almost a year later in February 1993.[4]
Even after Tsongas withdrew, supporters continued to back his candidacy.  In Connecticut he obtained 20 percent of the vote and in New York[5] he came in a surprising second (29 percent) without campaigning.  During the course of the campaign, Tsongas won four primaries and five caucuses and tallied more than 3.6 million votes.  He endorsed Bill Clinton on July 8 (>) and addressed the Democratic National Convention on July 15 (>), calling on Democrats to "first create an inclusive and just society and second ensure economic security."

Although one commentator wrote that "A Call To Economic Arms" did not match up to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and others found it preachy, it was a thoughtful, substantial document.  Tsongas called for strategic investment--the government working as a full partner with business, efforts to increase the savings rate, encouraging U.S. corporations to adopt a long-term perspective, a targeted reduction in the capital gains tax, R&D tax credits, and a national energy policy including increases in the gas tax and more consideration of the nuclear option.  In a 14-page section on culture that attracted scant attention in the media, Tsongas decried "the spiritual emptiness of television programming" and noted that something is lost under "the onslaught of sameness" brought about by malls and commercial strips.  Ironically, the booklet did not include anything on health care reform; in an October 1, 1991 speech Tsongas introduced "Health for All Americans," a managed competition plan.

Tsongas' message resonated most with college-educated and upper middle class voters.  He also attracted support from the gay and lesbian community; he had introduced a gay rights bill in the Senate, fought for a gay rights plank at the 1980 Democratic convention and employed open gays on his Senate staff.  Some of Tsongas' ideas made Democrats uncomfortable, and he did attract Independents and even some Republicans.

In September 1992 Tsongas and former Senator Warren Rudman launched the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that challenges national elected officials to address the deficit problem (>).

1. The Tsongas Committee's inception date was March 7, 1991.  Thus Tsongas had a month and a half as an unannounced candidate.  One of his important appearances during this time was a speech at the National Press Club luncheon on April 11 (>).  See: Steven Pearlstein.  "Tsongas A Swim Against the Tide."  Washington Post, April 11, 1991.

2. Rhodes Cook.  "First Out of Democratic Chute, Tsongas Remains Dark Horse."  Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, November 2, 1991, pages 3219-24.

3. Richard L. Berke.  "Tsongas Runs Hard on a Tightrope As He Reluctantly Goes on Offensive."  New York Times, March 9, 1992, page A13.

4. In February 1993 Tsongas' chief fundraiser, Nicholas A. Rizzo Jr., was indicted on 46 counts in what federal prosecutors called the largest campaign fraud in U.S. history.  Rizzo, a member of Tsongas' inner circle, had been stealing campaign contributions and ultimately diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds and illegal loans into a secret account.  He pleaded guilty to 25 counts on October 13, 1993. 

One question is: Could Rizzo have been caught earlier?  The Washington Post's Christopher Daly, citing the assistant U.S. attorney, writes that "the scheme came to light in early 1992 when Dennis Kanin, Tsongas's campaign manager, began hearing that donors were not receiving acknowledgments. Kanin and Tsongas then confronted Rizzo, who initially lied and tried to put them off." See: Christopher B. Daly.  "Tsongas's Chief Fund-Raiser Pleads Guilty."  Washington Post, October 14, 1993.  Also see: Staff.  "Report of the Audit Division on The Tsongas Committee, Inc."  Federal Election Commission, December 16, 1994.

5. A challenge from the New Alliance Party almost kept Tsongas off the ballot in New York.

Other Articles:
Gary Lee.  "Tsongas Made Money As Middle Man."  Washington Post, February 16, 1992.

Staff.  "The 'Uncandidate': How Pure Is Paul?"  Newsweek, March 15, 1992.

Steven Pearlstein.  "Boardroom Tsongas: Unconventional Voice."  Washington Post, March 16, 1992, page A10.

Laurence I. Barrett.  "The Democrats Southern Fried Feuding."  Time, March 16, 1992.

Michael Kramer and John F. Stacks. "Clinton vs. Tsongas: A no-holds-barred debate about how to fix America's economy."  Time, March 23, 1992 (cover story).

See also Tsongas' books: HEADING HOME (Knopf, 1984) and THE ROAD FROM HERE: Liberalism and Realities in the 1980s (Knopf, 1981).

More Resources:
Paul E. Tsongas.  1995.  JOURNEY OF PURPOSE: Reflections on the Presidency, Multiculturalism, and Third Parties.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  Particularly see Chapter 1 "The Lessons of 1992."

Nik DeCosta-Klipa.  "A look back at Paul Tsongas's unorthodox bid for the White House, 25 years later.", March 19. 2017.

C-SPAN: Paul Tsongas, April 1991-November 1992 chronological  |  C-SPAN: all Paul Tsongas.

UMASS Lowell: Paul Tsongas Digital Archives.