Read These Books — They Will Open Up Your Political Mind

Posted March 31, 2004 at 2:25pm

If you’re dispirited by incessant partisan warfare that leads to little achievement, I have an epiphany for you. If you’re caught up in the wars, I have a challenge. Read just two books and you’ll have a whole new way of looking at things.

The books are “The Radical Center,” originally published in 2001, and “The Real State of the Union,” just out. They contain both a compelling critique of America’s current political quagmire and a treasure of new ideas for adapting the nation to the global information age economy and the “graying” of the population. [IMGCAP(1)]

The books are products of the New America Foundation, an utterly nonpartisan think tank that’s attracted some of the brightest young policy thinkers in the country and support from a bevy of foundations and moderate philanthropists.

Last month, I touted one of its ideas: mandatory private health insurance for everyone, which would lower premiums, make coverage portable, maximize choice and relieve employers of the cost of administering plans.

Other compelling NAF ideas include giving each child a $6,000 “nest egg” at birth, untouchable until age 18, which could launch “universal capitalism” in the population and reduce the need for a welfare state; replacing the payroll tax with a progressive consumption tax to encourage savings; partially privatizing Social Security and equalizing school funding across the nation by putting money — and choice — in the hands of parents.

In the past, some of these ideas have been advanced by such independent thinkers in Congress as then-Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y), John Chafee (R-R.I.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).

Current exponents of various NAF proposals include Sens. John Breaux (D-La.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz), Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and members of the Republican Mainstream Partnership in the House.

Besides the proposals — especially the notions of shifting from a consumer society to a saver/investor society and expanding citizen choices and responsibilities — what I find totally on-target is the NAF critique of America’s current political deadlock.

“Our nation’s politics are dominated by two feuding dinosaurs that have outlived the world in which they evolved,” authors Ted Halsted and Michael Lind write in “The Radical Center.”

“Both parties have been captured by their own extremes and special interests, which prevent them from promoting majority views across a wide range of issues,” they write.

And, “more important, both remain so wedded to the ideas and institutions of the last century that neither has proven capable of rising to the challenges of the next.”

Halsted, NAF’s 35-year-old president, and Lind, 41, a senior fellow, observe that a plurality of Americans regard themselves as moderates and as independents, yet neither party serves them.

This may account for the decline of voter participation — as does the constant exploitation of social “wedge” issues to herd moderates and independents into line with one party or the other.

In an interview and in a chapter in “The Real State of the Union,” Halstead described Republicans as “the party of the Church” — highly ideological, moralistic, almost a “theocracy,” yet also “revolutionary” and “the party of big ideas.”

Democrats, he said, are “the party of the Chieftains,” a collection of interest groups so dedicated to preserving the achievements of the New Deal and Great Society that they are “trapped in the past, routinely defending antiquated industrial-era programs even when these no longer serve their original ends” of social protection and equity.

Halstead asserts that President Bush and the GOP are wedded primarily to an ideology of income tax cuts for the wealthy, but have hedged their bets politically with big spending, creating a reality of what he calls “Supply Side Keynsianism” that may help Bush get re-elected, but leaves no resources for potential reforms.

It takes money to create private savings accounts in Social Security and offer school vouchers to poor children — about $1 trillion for PSAs — but Bush has blown it on a combination of tax cuts, defense outlays and subsidies for interest groups, including farmers, seniors and the oil industry.

Meantime, Democrats are totally wedded to the old order and their constituent interest groups, fighting any reforms of Social Security or Medicare, defending public employee unions, bowing to ethnic group demands for continued preferences and fighting citizen choice beyond the private realms of reproduction and lifestyle.

Each party, Halstead says, has tilted temporarily toward the “radical center” — the Democrats under Bill Clinton on welfare reform and free trade, the GOP during Bush’s momentary 2000 identification as a “compassionate conservative,” “a different kind of Republican,” and “a uniter not a divider.”

Clinton, Halstead says, never followed through on reform, partly because he got caught up in personal scandal. Bush, he and Lind write, “was disingenuous” and his tilt toward compassion “appears to have been little more than a game of bait and switch.” I call it his election-year Halloween costume.

So, what’s the alternative? It would be a presidency based on 21st-century needs — maximizing choice, flexibility, fairness, savings, investment and personal responsibility. It would replace the New Deal system of “universal entitlement” with a “safety net” social plan in which most people are encouraged to take care of themselves but the poor would be protected.

Halstead is not advocating the creation of a new third party. Rather, he thinks that one party or the other will gradually adopt new ideas because the old ones are failing both programmatically and politically.

The likeliest to do so, he thinks, would be the one that loses the 2004 election and needs a refreshed appeal. In the meantime, the ideas are there for all. Just read the books.