PRESIDENT-ELECT Clinton's promised "economic summit" will give an early indication of whether the man controls events, or vice versa. The idea of a high-level retreat, while not yet thought through, was disclosed by aides Warren Christopher and Vernon Jordan on the Sunday talk shows, during the first transition week. The event then took on a life of its own.
Why, after all, have an economic summit? If form follows function, what is the function of such an event? A summit could perhaps demonstrate that Mr. Clinton is listening to a diverse cross section of leaders and thinkers -- but he's already doing that. A summit might conceivably produce a consensus program on how to fix the economy -- but such things almost never emerge from two-day conferences.
Successful summits, foreign and domestic, work best when 99 percent of the decisions have been made before the event. In practice, the risks of a high-profile, genuinely deliberative event far outweigh the possible gains.
For one thing, the telephones of the Friends of Bill and the friends of the Friends of Bill have been ringing off their hooks. Every high roller, every policy kibitzer who wants to be seen as a "player" is begging to be included. ("I raised half a million bucks for Bill. You have to just do this one thing for me.")
There is of course no way for a meaningful working conference to include more than, say, a hundred people. But for every hundred people the new president invites, he alienates a thousand others.
There is the further problem of failing to satisfy everybody. Summiteers will come with dozens of separate agendas, mixing the public interest with narrow private interests.
A summit conference implies deliberation and decision-making. But by empowering the participants to make recommendations, Mr. Clinton risks holding himself hostage to the advice of others. The very psychology of summitry raises unrealistic expectations a dramatic breakthrough that the format is unlikely to produce.
A related problem is media frenzy. An economic summit would presumably be a public, or at least semi-public, event.
It will either be televised, or film crews will be stationed outside, interviewing participants. This is hardly likely to yield real progress, and it could yield a lot of second-guessing about what wasn't accomplished.
The summit could be a "retreat," in both senses of the word. The need now is to redefine the event and limit the possible damage.
The real economic summit, of course, is going on daily in Little Rock. Mr. Clinton and Al Gore, and their top aides, are reviewing options, discussing possible strategies with a cross section of experts and elected officials, and deciding what course to pursue. This is exactly as it should be.
The main virtue of a public summit would be to endorse the broad outlines of what the incoming administration has already worked out; but we would be naive to think that policy could, or should, be defined at such a meeting.
The broad contours of the initial Clinton economic policy, in fact, have already been defined: First, an economic stimulus in the first year, driven by public and private investment, and followed by gradual, partial deficit reduction. Second, early progress toward health reform, based on universal coverage coupled with comprehensive containment of costs.
If the new administration can get these two big issues on track, it will have made a fine start. Happily, this program in its basic outlines already commands a fairly wide emerging consensus. In the coming weeks, Mr. Clinton's task and that of his aides is to fine-tune the details and then to nail down the support of leaders from business and labor, political life and academia.
But what, then, to do with the summit? To the extent that the idea has merit at all, Mr. Clinton should postpone it until after he is inaugurated.
One way to solve the problem of accommodating all the VIPs demanding invitations is to throw open the doors. Mr. Clinton, who used town meetings effectively in his campaign, could set up five or six regional economic town meetings. VIP invitations would then lose a lot of their glitter.
A top aide or two could be dispatched to each of the regional events, and listen to what a broad cross section of Americans have to advise about the economy. Mr. Clinton himself might want to attend. If some useful ideas emerge, great.
For now, the "summit" should be redefined as a continuing series of private consultations with leaders and experts, followed by a public show of support once the policy is defined.
By all means, let Mr. Clinton listen to America. But in the end, he has to define the course.
Robert Kuttner writes on economic matters.