A New Center Beckons, but Can Either Party Find It?

To: President Bush

Senate Majority Leader Daschle

From: RauchCorp Political Consulting Inc.

The great prize in American politics is long-term dominance of the center, which, as of now, is up for grabs. And what a prize! Whichever party claims and holds the center will be the majority party for a generation to come. Yet watching the two of you and your parties, Mr. President and Mr. Majority Leader, is like watching two turtles race to be last.

The best way to move partisan turtles is to dangle political treats, so in this memo let me spell out how the New Center (explanation to follow) promises a lasting governing majority to whichever party loses the turtle race and gets there first.

As Michael Barone argued in these pages last week, America's parties have stalemated. In three straight presidential elections and three straight House elections, neither party has won quite 50 percent of the vote. Question: What might push the electorate off the fence and elevate one party or the other to long-term majority status? Answer: identification with the New Center.

New Deal and Great Society liberalism was a convenient marriage of two ideas that in fact were conceptually distinct. The first was that Washington should guarantee some reasonable degree of security and certainty in a capricious and sometimes unfair world. The second was that the best way to provide security was through large, centralized bureaucracies that made all the choices. For 50 years, liberals insisted on security and on bureaucracy, and conservatives rejected both. The New Center, accepting both liberals' commitment to security and conservatives' commitment to individual choice, breaks the old linkage. Its motto: Security Without Bureaucracy. Washington provides the money; individuals make the decisions.

Top-down, one-size-fits-all programs suited a generation accustomed to factory work and bureaucratic corporations and world wars, but they do not suit a generation accustomed to the Internet and telecommuting and rapid-deployment forces. For the 90 million Americans between the ages of 5 and 30, choice is an end, not just a means, writes 25-year-old Andrei Cherny in The Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age (Basic Books, 2000). "Exercising choice defines their outlook," Cherny notes. "It reflects their sense of self-confidence, their expectation that the world can be conformed to their individual personalities, and their belief in taking responsibility for themselves and their community." To the members of this group, the notion that the government can do a better job than they can of investing their retirement money, choosing their health plan, or selecting their children's school is ludicrous.

I'll go out on a limb. One way or another, 25 years from now Americans will take for granted the ability to manage part or all of their Social Security investments, tailor their own Medicare package and other government-funded health benefits, and choose their own school. Moreover, they will cherish these choices and feel allegiance to whichever party they think bestowed them. So the question is: Which party will that be? Both parties have flirted with the security-with-choice theme, but, thanks to political blundering and ideological stubbornness, neither has really embraced it. So, President Bush and Sen. Daschle, what should you do?

President Bush: You enjoy two important advantages. One, of course, is the presidency, that nonpareil soapbox and bully pulpit. The second is your 2000 campaign, in which you pointedly included New Center initiatives for Social Security, Medicare, and education, some of them heisted from the New Democrats. Why you spent your early political capital on a rightward-looking tax cut is beyond me, but it is not too late for you to begin sounding like a New Centrist rather than an old (albeit "compassionate") conservative.

Luckily, you can make lemonade from your lemons. The tax cut put smiles on conservative faces and bought you a lot of credit with the Republican Right. That potentially gives you running room for a free- wheeling incursion centerward. And your weakness in allowing the school choice provisions to be dropped from your education bill gives you an excuse to come back for a second shot, this one aimed properly.

Here, then, is what to do:

On education, make school competition a central theme. Propose to match local and private vouchers and scholarships with federal grants; means-test your program to focus it on poor children in rotten schools; go to the inner cities to pitch it, standing by the side of minority parents who need better education for their children right now. Bring Medicare reform to the fore this fall instead of letting it take a backseat to prescription drug benefits; although actual changes will perforce be incremental, now is the time to put Republicans' brand on the idea that seniors should be able to choose a health package that suits their needs rather than Washington's.

As for Social Security, everybody expects a Bush proposal, but no one knows how hard you'll fight. Your Social Security commission will call for some form of personal savings account; if the Democrats insist on adding such accounts to Social Security rather than carving them out of the existing program, grab the deal and say it's what you wanted all along.

These ideas, and no others, should now be the lodestars of your domestic agenda. If you seize the New Center before the Democrats get there, they will be forced to choose between grumpy me-tooism and old-fashioned liberal scare-mongering, which may get them through 2002 but will paint them as reactionaries in the long run.

Sen. Daschle: Your institutional position is weaker than Bush's, and your peril is greater. Your party lacks the presidency and only barely controls one chamber of Congress, and your Caucus is in imminent danger of backsliding toward smug liberal posturing. Newly empowered in the Senate, the party is crafting an agenda that would make Walter Mondale proud: a minimum-wage increase, a patients' bill of rights, prescription drug benefits for seniors, and energy price controls.

"Democrats have to look beyond the usual suspects and think bigger," says Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the New Democrats' think tank. "There's an opportunity to offer bigger and bolder ideas that can capture the public's imagination and define real philosophical contrasts with Bushism. That's the strategic opportunity that Senate Democrats ought to seize."

Here, then, is what to do:

Remember that Democrats birthed most of the New Center agenda. Take it back! Democrats can't realistically defy the teacher unions on school vouchers, but they can push much harder for ambitious expansions of charter schools, and even "charter districts," in which every school is empowered to escape the strangulating school board bureaucracy. Offer federal encouragement to states that strip away obstacles to charters and to public school competition; argue that school competition and higher pay for top teachers are two sides of the same anti-bureaucratic, pro-performance coin.

End your lazy and archaic reliance on Social Security scare tactics; embrace reforms that put tomorrow's pensioners in the driver's seat, if not instead of the current program, then certainly in addition to it. Remember, this was a Democratic idea (put forth by such party stalwarts as former Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Kerrey) before Bush pilfered it. Ditto for Medicare modernization, which was pioneered by Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. Marshall gets the Medicare pitch about right: "We'd like to see competition and choice take hold in Medicare so there would be continuous updating and improving of benefits." Beyond Medicare reform lies what Marshall calls "universal health care without bureaucracy": a system that would give people tax credits and let them choose a health plan. Conservatives have talked up that sort of scheme for years; now is the time for Democrats to steal it and push it.

And move fast, Sen. Daschle. The Senate's Democratic switch could not have come at a better time, because it catches Bush after he has lurched rightward with the tax cut and before he has lurched back to the center. If you move now—right now—you can cut him off at the pass and establish that Senate Democrats are a new breed. Your best, and possibly only, hope is to stake your claim to the New Center before Bush wakes up and beats you to it.

Me, I don't much care which party wins the slow-motion race to the center; my interest is in seeing somebody get there, and preferably sooner rather than later. New Centrist policies will make life better, people happier, and government more effective. But they will have to be enacted first. So run, you turtles! Step on it! Last one to the New Center is turtle soup.