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Mandate for Change.

A student of mine once asked me to distinguish liberals and conservatives from progressives. She was in a big hurry, so I answered half-jokingly as follows: Most thinking people of good will believe that human reason can fashion responses to social maladies such as poverty, crime, and racism. But liberals believe the responses are likely to prove humane and effective. Conservatives believe they are bound to be perverse and futile. And progressives believe that everything would be just fine were it not for the existence of liberals and conservatives. As a corollary, I added that, in thinking about how to solve complex public problems, liberals put governments first, conservatives put markets first, and progressives put themselves first.

The publication of the Progressive Policy Institute's (PPI) Mandate for Change marks a watershed in the evolution of the ABLC (Anything But Liberal or Conservative) tradition of policy progressivism. The PPI was rounded in 1989 as the policy think-tank of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which Bill Clinton chaired from 1990-1991. The preface to Mandate for Change proudly notes that Clinton "encouraged PPI's efforts to develop new policies that challenge both liberal and conservative orthodoxies." Clinton's own big-type quote on the front cover (complete with a presidential seal embossed behind it) promises that the book "charts a bold new course for reviving progressive government in America" and "really looks beyond the old Left-Right debates of the past and tries to move us toward a better future."

The new blurber-in-chief is not all wrong. By any measure, Mandate for Change is an impressive, illuminating, and wide-ranging book and has many important and novel things to say about the nation's most pressing domestic and international policy challenges. Having gotten off to a rocky start with Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, gays in the military, and attacks on Social Security benefits, Clinton can still re-read chapter 14 on how to effect a foolproof transition and hit the ground running. The book is required reading for Kempish Republicans who want a good point of intellectual departure for their own DLC-like comeback efforts. And as policy blueprints for new administrations go, PPI is every inch a match for the Heritage Foundation, producer of the now ancient Reagan administration document, Mandate for Leadership.

But Mandate for Change certainly does not deliver what contributors William A. Galston and Elaine Ciulla Kamarck herald as "an agenda for action that transcends the stale options of the Left and Right." Rather, it is a book that deserves to be taken seriously even though its editors and contributors often substitute rhetorical flights for policy analysis, caricaturing liberal or conservative ideas on one page only to adopt them (albeit with brave new labels) on another.

In the preface, PPI's founder and president Will Marshall and nationally syndicated columnist Martin Schram summarize the "five core themes that define the new progressive politics: opportunity, responsibility, community, democracy, and entrepreneurial government." In a preface to a volume such as this, one expects to find some stirring words and should not be surprised or disappointed if a few of them are overstirred.

But Marshall and Schram go too far. They suggest that both liberals and conservatives are at odds with the belief that "America's strength ultimately resides in our families and communities." Liberals favor government handouts, conservatives favor unfettered markets, but progressives know the value of "voluntary associations and institutions of community-- America's 'third sector.'" (Excuse me while I extinguish my thousand points of light.) Responsibility? Liberals favor a "politics of entitlement," conservatives favor a "politics of social neglect," but progressives favor "reciprocal obligation." Democracy? Liberals are hopeless idealists, conservatives are obsessed with power, but progressives are "realistic" and "tough-minded." And so on.

These are not "core themes" of a "new progressive politics." They are buzzword-hammocks suspended between liberal and conservative strawmen. Let me give it a whirl. Ideology? Liberals often demonize conservatives, conservatives often demonize liberals, but progressives reflexively trivialize both.

Short change

Perhaps the most egregious example of this Goldilocks progressivism is so-called entrepreneurial government. Unlike liberals and conservatives, write Marshall and Schram, progressives "seek innovative, non-bureaucratic ways of governing," including "choice, competition, and market incentives in the public sector." Chapter 12, "Reinventing Government," by PPI Fellow David Osborne, is an attempt to justify this rhetoric.

Unfortunately, the Osborne chapter is little more than a well-packaged list of administrative proverbs. I know that many FOBs, big-name journalists, and the National Governors' Association have embraced Osborne's "reinventing government" schtick. But the only thing he "reinvents" are ideas that have been discussed in dozens of reports on civil service reform dating back to the sixties---contracting out, public-private partnerships, and participative management, to name just a few.

Osborne is pathologically fond of making sweeping generalizations based on success stories drawn from the experiences of a few public agencies and jurisdictions. Where evidence for his management bromides is transparently thin, he resorts to tautologies and a superabundance of slogans (e.g., "emphasize missions and outcomes," "earning rather than spending," "steering rather than rowing.")

In contrast, the book's chapters on the economy are generally well-argued, obviously well-researched, and they come close to justifying the heady claim that progressives have transcended liberal and conservative ideas.

Contributors Robert J. Shapiro and Doug Ross offer a plan for spurting job creation, business investment, state and local capital investment, and U.S. export growth. They argue strongly in favor of massive increases in public spending (whoops, make that massive increases in public "investment") for education, research and development, transportation, and other levers of "wealth-producing activities," and propose that for 12 months "firms should be eligible to receive a tax credit for a significant portion of the first $10,000 in wages paid to new employees." Shapiro recommends dividing the budget into three separate parts (Past, Present, and Future Budgets), "reflecting the different economic impacts of different kinds of spending." He also argues the need for a comprehensive sunset procedure for all government programs plus a line-item veto for the president. And Ross does a superlative job of summarizing ongoing changes in the ways goods and services are produced in the advanced economies.

Unfortunately, Ross sidetracks himself with a wacky proposal for a "new Employment Insurance System" based on "a Career Opportunity Card---a voucher or wallet card" that "would entitle a person to purchase up to $1,200 in education or training" during any five-year period in which he falls on hard times. Ross likens this proposal to the GI Bill, but that's quite a stretch. Try buying what the GI Bill bought with $1,200 in 1993 dollars and you'll see what I mean.

But Ross's proposal points up a broader truth about the book--its ultimate kinship to liberal policy ideas. To be sure, there are parts of Mandate for Change that would warm the coldest conservative heart. For example, a chapter by Marshall and Kamarck, "Replacing Welfare with Work," depicts welfare programs as abject failures. "Welfare," they write, "undercuts the incentive to work," "underwrites single parenthood," and "empowers bureaucrats rather than the poor."

For the most part, however, the book errs strongly in favor of liberal approaches. Call it cradle-to-grave progressivism. For example, as a pre-schooler, years before you pick up your $1,200 "Career Opportunity Card," you earn your folks an $800-per-child tax credit and get them time off work for good parental behavior via the Family Leave Bill (see chapter 7). If you grow up to do your community service bit for the "Citizens Corps," you earn $10,000 in vouchers "for college, job training, or housing" (see chapter 6). If you find yourself hooked on drugs, you just report to your local federalyy-sponsored drug clinic, where you're legally entitled to immediate treatment (see chapter 8). Whenever you need a doctor or a hospital stay, just call your local Health Insurance Purchasing Cooperative (HIPC). But be careful, because HIPCs "only market standardized benefit packages offered by accountable health plans." But accountable, you ask, to whom? Accountable, of course, to the all-new federal health bureaucracy modeled on "the Securities and Exchange Commission" (see chapter 5). And don't worry about the inefficiencies of this new bureaucratic entity because, remember, progressives know how to "reinvent" government even while they' re expanding it in every conceivable direction.

Still, Mandate for Change borrows creatively from the Left, the Right, and the informed Center. For example, in a chapter on environmental policy, Harvard University's Robert Stavins and former Food and Drug Administration official Thomas Grumbly discuss tradable permit systems and other incentive-based approaches to cutting pollution and costs. They do an able job, for example, of retreading ideas first articulated by Charles L. Schultze, a Brookings economist and Carter-era Council of Economics Advisers chief. Unfortunately, anyone in search of detailed, practical, or strategic advice about precisely what the U.S. should do in the world's trouble spots, from Somalia to Bosnia, will not find it in Marshall's chapter, the only one in the book, I might add, that deals explicitly with international relations, diplomacy, and military force.

At a time when many volumes on public policy play fast-and-loose with the facts, it is no faint praise to say that Mandate for Change is relatively free of factual errors or gross distortions of data. There are, however, some exceptions. For example, an otherwise decent discussion of crime by Georgia Director of Intergovernmental Relations Ed Kilgore is marred by a misrepresentation of the statistics on U.S. crime and imprisonment trends and by ignorance of recent empirical findings on gun control. Adjusted to account for relevant demographic and other differences, the United States does not have "by far the highest incarceration rate in the world." Despite-the bulge in the nation's prison population, the number of persons imprisoned per 1,000 serious crimes actually decreased between 1981 and 1989. And as much as I support a ban on assault weapons, the best available studies do not make the case that additional gun control measures would cut crime.

By the same token, Mandate for Change is remarkably free of the self-contradictions that are common in the what-to-do-next policy genre. Still, there are a few problems. For example, Kilgore's crime chapter lambasts the Reagan and Bush administrations for reducing the federal role in "making streets safer." But in a second Osborne chapter, "A New Federal Compact," criminal justice is listed along with volunteer services and rural development as an area in which "no federal action is justified."

Perhaps the progressives are banking on Osborne's new "Federalism Czar" and the passage of his "American Perestroika Act" (I'm not making this up) to resolve such contradictions. In the meantime, however, this citizen of the Republic would sleep a bit easier if the PPI reprinted and distributed to its progressive true believers copies of James Madison's Federalist, numbers 10, 39, and 51. Madison had a few time-tested thoughts about inter-governmental relations that Osborne and company seem not to know.

Finally, in the book's foreword, "Interpreting the 1992 Election," Schram and the distinguished sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset attempt to find both a personal and a policy mandate for Clinton in the polling data and election returns. To be kind, they doth protest too loudly. I believe that Lipset was among those who in 1981 argued that the country had not decisively moved rightward with Reagan. The data and returns from the 1992 elections, which my Princeton colleague Donald E. Stokes and I have recently analyzed for a forthcoming Congressional Quarterly publication, admit of many reasonable interpretations. But even the most well-intentioned squinter cannot find in them the sort of decisive mandate for change that Lipset and Schram find lurking in the numbers on the election of our latest plurality president.

Still, the voters did demand that the economy be improved--and that everything else that's wrong with America be fixed in the bargain, with as little human and financial pain as possible. That is the new president's real mandate. The PPI is to be applauded for dating to help William Jefferson Clinton achieve this mission impossible. Understood as a fervent progressive policy prayerbook, Mandate for Change makes inspiring reading.

John J Dilulio Jr. is Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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Author:Dilulio, John J.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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