I Love the '90s

The New America Foundation's Robert Wright made a compelling case in Sunday's New York Times for a foreign policy paradigm that he labeled “progressive realism.” The approach he outlined entailed actively leveraging a more robust system of international institutions, adaptable to both new threats and economic opportunities, in pursuit of U.S. national self-interest through intrusive weapons inspections, enforcement of new environmental and labor standards, humanitarian efforts, and so on.

Wright might have added another virtue of the “progressive realism” label: The terminology is helpful in defining a politically and substantively attractive approach to domestic policy as well. Captured by definition one of “realism” in Webster's dictionary -- “concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary” -- the thrust of the paradigm on the home front is the pursuit of initiatives that have a proven track record of success and aggressive efforts to eliminate or overhaul ineffective, wasteful policies. A hard-headed focus on producing concrete results would help to attract voters drawn to liberal values but who retain skepticism about government. It also would lead to better government, producing a virtuous cycle of support for progressivism realism.

In stark contrast to the Bush administration's multitude of failures, all of which invariably have squandered taxpayer dollars, the single most appealing trait of the Clinton era domestically was its success in getting more bang for the government buck. His biggest accomplishments literally paid off for taxpayers: Clinton's economic policies helped to produce widely shared income growth and budget surpluses; welfare reform reduced rolls while low-income women gained jobs and had fewer out-of-wedlock babies; the expanded earned income tax credit strengthened economic security for low- and middle-income households in a way widely perceived to be fair and efficient; and Al Gore's efforts at reinventing government made the bureaucracy more responsive while reducing 377,000 federal jobs -- nearly a fifth of the government work force.

Particularly now in contrast to the wastefulness and failures of the Bush administration, those successes of the Clinton period can serve as reference points for clarifying that progressive realism means producing measurable results in pursuit of widely supported goals. It also means, in part, getting rid of tax breaks and, to the extent possible, programs that benefit only narrow constituencies but serve no proven public purpose. An important part of the idea would be to establish transparent new ways of evaluating whether laws, programs, regulations, and tax incentives are accomplishing what they were intended to do. That's anything but the norm now. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report, for example, led with the headline, “Substantial Funds Are Used for Training, but Little is Known Nationally About Training Outcomes.” Progressive realists would no longer accept that lack of accountability as a matter of course.

Progressive realism's watchword is results. No more chasing woolly-headed ideological dreams like those that conservatives have pursued lately or liberals did long ago in ways that alienated the public. The idea is simply to make actual progress toward many of the same quantifiable goals that the right has claimed to support: reducing vulnerability to terrorism and natural catastrophe, raising incomes, improving economic security, reducing poverty, cutting deficits, strengthening Social Security, slowing medical inflation, broadening health insurance coverage, upgrading schools, and implementing genuinely “smart regulation” of the environment and public hazards. But instead of sticking with ideas hatched at conservative and libertarian think tanks that have demonstrably failed on every single one of those fronts, progressive realists would build on initiatives that have worked before at the national or state level or in other countries. That includes increases in the minimum wage, adjustments to Social Security consistent with the enormously successful 1983 reforms, and a renewed push toward universal health insurance -- which any number of other countries have demonstrated is a far more efficient way to protect the public than our crazy-quilt system. Legislation would be written to include impact assessments and sunset provisions, which require a re-evaluation after a specified period to publicly review whether the policy produced the intended results.

Progressive realists need to be, well, realistic about eliminating the multitude of outmoded, ineffective programs decried in Jonathan Rauch's books Demosclerosis and Government's End. The political constituencies supporting them are forever fierce and entrenched, so clearing away useless but deeply rooted and relatively inexpensive detritus like the Targeted Exports Program or wool and mohair subsidies may not be more than a secondary priority for progressive realists. Rauch quotes Clinton Budget Director Leon Panetta, after hearing criticism that the National Performance Review proposed eliminating only 15 relatively inconsequential programs: “I would kiss the ground and thank God if we could eliminate 15.” Progressive realists won't have it any easier, though sustaining a public drumbeat of criticism may eventually pull off a miracle or two.

The tax code is a more promising and important target, however. The 1986 Tax Reform Act demonstrated that it's possible to sweep away large numbers of narrowly targeted and inefficient tax breaks in one fell swoop in the name of tax simplification and fairness. Using that widely hailed legislation as a model for another radical and progressive tax overhaul -- invoking Ronald Reagan's original sponsorship at every turn to sustain Republican support for a politically formidable undertaking -- would be the clearest possible demonstration to the public of the idea of wiping out wasteful favors to select groups of companies and high-income taxpayers. In the process, the tax rates on income from investments would be raised to the same level as income from work, simplifying and restoring equity in conformance with the 1986 bill. Reforming the tax code along those lines would send a more powerful realist message than merely trying to play whack-a-mole with obscure sclerotic programs, because every citizen who pays for government can recognize the value of a less complex system in which individuals and companies with comparable incomes pay comparable taxes.

From a political standpoint, progressive realism is the flip side of “compassionate conservativism.” For one thing, there's substance and real-world experience defining the label that remains largely missing from Bush's rubric, notwithstanding the deeply flawed Medicare drug law and No Child Left Behind -- two car wrecks that progressive realists are fully prepared to repair. And just as the “compassionate conservatism” terminology was politically effective in easing public qualms about the right's notoriously hard edges, “progressive realism” can help to counter the persisting caricature of wild-eyed, tax-and-spend liberals. The simplicity of applying the same two-word phrase to governing philosophies that span both foreign and domestic policy is also helpful in providing some long overdue clarity for Americans confused by the generally ad hoc pragmatism of progressives.

Advancing the “common good,” the more poetic phrase that the Prospect's Michael Tomasky has been seeking to revitalize as a vision for liberalism, requires producing measurable results rather than continuing to just accommodate and balance the concerns of various interest groups. Progressive realism will no doubt upset some of those constituencies in certain circumstances. But the potential payoff, politically and for the country, justifies those risks.

Greg Anrig Jr. is vice president of The Century Foundation and co-editor of Social Security: Beyond the Basics.

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