Clinton at the summit: A man capable of defining consensus

Robert Kuttner

December 18, 1992|By Robert Kuttner

Little Rock, Ark. -- THE Little Rock economic summit provided as many clues about how President-elect Clinton will govern as it signaled plans for the economy. The overwhelming impression is of a man capable of listening, teaching, imagining, asking astute questions, and -- above all -- defining consensus.

In convening this summit, Mr. Clinton gambled that he could avert an overly scripted media stunt or fractious discord. He walked that tightrope, thanks to his mastery of detail and level of comfort around smart, diverse people. What other chief executive could you imagine presiding over such a gathering, with grace and without cue cards? (Roosevelt? Jefferson?)

For an event sponsored by Democrats, the summit was also mercifully free of special pleading or harangue. Even the representatives of predictable interest groups -- minorities, trade unionists, advocates of the poor, the handicapped, the elderly, beleaguered small-business owners -- spoke less as special claimants than as members of a coalition that genuinely wants Mr. Clinton to define a national interest.

As for the economy, one could discern tantalizing hints of what is to come. Mr. Clinton carefully chose as lead presenters Robert Solow of MIT and James Tobin of Yale, two Nobel laureates best known for their insistence that the economy's main problem is slow growth, not the deficit.

The conference did give time to two noted champions of deficit-reduction, Brookings economist Henry Aaron and John White, draftsman of the Perot deficit-reduction plan and now of Harvard's JFK School. But, in a telling detail, Mr. Clinton (P personally intervened to elevate Northwestern University economist Robert Eisner from the audience to the panel, to balance the deficit-hawks.

Dr. Eisner is perhaps the economics profession's most eminent advocate of the view that the deficit is a mismeasured and much overrated menace. Based on Mr. Clinton's own comments throughout, one can anticipate an early investment-stimulus package using both public investment and tax incentives to stimulate private investment.

What really got Mr. Clinton's juices flowing, however, were the longer-term challenges of structural reform. He warmed to a comment from a prominent banker that solving the bank credit crunch would be more of a tonic to the economy than increased short-term budget outlays. Mr. Clinton also kept coming back to education and technology as sources of long-term growth.

His appointment of Berkeley economist Laura D'Andrea Tyson to chair the Council of Economic Advisers reinforces the impression that the president-elect views the real economic challenge as reform of complex institutions, not simply as a fiscal fix. Dr. Tyson is the first woman to hold the post, but far more significant than her gender is the fact that she is the first chief economic adviser whose main professional interests include such issues as trade, technology, industrial competitiveness and worker .

training.

Though Dr. Tyson has taught macroeconomics, she is not primarily a macroeconomist; her appointment has given hives to the high theorists of that sub-discipline, who had anticipated that the CEA job would go, as usual, to one of their number. In the past, the CEA has filtered out interventionist economic proposals emanating from other cabinet departments. Under Dr. Tyson, it will facilitate them.

Mr. Clinton also rejected counsel to slash social outlay, observing pointedly that for all the talk of "entitlements" being out of control, the biggest budget-buster is rising health-care costs. Here Mr. Clinton forthrightly embraced the paradox that the best strategy for reining in health costs is to universalize the entitlement to health coverage.

In a panel on "Lifetime Learning," Mr. Clinton connected better early childhood education and day care, with reduction of dropout rates, apprenticeships and a more productive economy. This, like health reform, will also cost some public money.

Yet if Mr. Clinton often seemed surprisingly liberal, he also sounded comfortably conservative on issues where the country is conservative. The discussions of poverty emphasized work, not welfare. His repeated comments describing his own frustrations as a sitting governor with the stupidity and red tape emanating from Washington charmed the business leaders in attendance; they sensed a fellow-sufferer who understood.

The corporate executives, many of them Republicans, reciprocated with a rare display of social conscience. Harold "Red" Poling, chief executive of Ford, startled the gathering by calling for -- of all things -- a gasoline tax. There was as much support for child care from business leaders as from professional child advocates.

Embracing goals at a two-day summit, of course, is much easier than legislating them into national policy. Still, I came away from Little Rock impressed and even uplifted. At least 30 of the 329 participants were Republicans, and more than a few were liberal Democrats initially skeptical of Mr. Clinton. In conversations with a broad cross-section of the attendees, the word I heard again and again was "astonishing." People were stunned at Mr. Clinton's range, grasp of detail, intuition and capacity to set a tone.

Timing is everything. Mr. Clinton takes office at a moment when the economic problems present an arduous politics and daunting technical complexity. These are two realms in which he excels. And at the same time, there is less bitter division in America and more room for consensus than at any time in nearly 30 years. It promises to be an electric first hundred days.

Robert Kuttner writes a column on economic matters.

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