WASHINGTON -- If you want to understand the Clinton administration, you had better learn to speak its language.
And the best way of doing that is to read a book being published today by the Progressive Policy Institute, the Washington think tank that is the intellectual wellspring of the "new Democrats" pouring into town next month.
The book is called "Mandate for Change," a title unashamedly based on the conservative Heritage Foundation's "Mandate for Leadership," which outlined the parameters of the supply-side policies introduced by the Reaganites in 1981.
President-elect Bill Clinton has already read and privately praised a draft of the PPI's book, and its chapters are circulating through the various transition teams working on economic, health, foreign affairs and other policy matters in Little Rock, Ark.
Many of the transition team members have been recruited from the Progressive Policy Institute and its parent organization, the Democratic Leadership Council, and they are expected to play a major role in the formulation of administration policy.
Their political influence will be demonstrated tomorrow when they become the first Washington organization to host the president-elect at their annual dinner.
The PPI book is full of the buzzwords -- such as "managed competition," "reinventing government," "voluntary national service," and "reciprocal obligation" -- that will shape the nation's economic, social and diplomatic debate over the next four years and possibly longer.
"In order to get into the ballpark of the debate, you have to be talking that language," said Daniel Guttman, a Washington lawyer, author of a book on think tanks, and a former legal counsel to a Senate subcommittee investigating the influence of outside experts on government. "That is the real influence of think tanks: The vocabulary in which the debate is going to take place is one that groups like the Progressive Policy Institute are comfortable with. If you can't talk the language, you are not in the debate."
The Progressive Policy Institute was founded in 1989 after the defeat of Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis. One of its original supporters was the governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton.
Its task: to define Democrats as something other than liberal big spenders and design policies in line with the times.
"When we got to 1988 we realized the Democratic Party had lost an election it probably should not have lost. There was a serious problem because Dukakis said he was not a liberal but couldn't say what he was," said Elaine Ciulla Kamarck, co-author of "The Politics of Evasion," a 1989 book that brutally laid bare the Democratic Party's real problem: It had lost touch with the electorate.
The message was not lost at the Democratic Leadership Council. Its executive director, Al From, and policy director Will Marshall decided to found their own in-house think tank to do for the Democrats what the Heritage Foundation had done so effectively for the Republicans -- set a new agenda.
Mrs. Kamarck, who holds a doctorate in political science, was the first recruit to the team that was to set about "reinventing government" by charting the so-called "third way" that would steer the party between liberalism and conservatism.
"The reason reinventing government is critical to Democrats is that what still distinguishes us from the Republicans is they don't believe in government," said Mrs. Kamarck. "Our philosophy is to create a non-bureaucratic form of government. . . . We see the bureaucratic form as a dying form of organization."
Mr. Clinton, who became chairman of the DLC in 1990, was closely involved in the emergence of the new policy ideas from the PPI. When he resigned in 1991 to run for the presidency, they formed the core of his political program. Those ideas included:
* A government capable of combining an entrepreneurial approach with social activism.
* Communities that recognize their responsibility to solve some of their own problems.
* Individuals who realize they have to give to as well as take from Uncle Sam.
* An economic policy based on growth rather than redistribution.
* And foreign policy focused on promotion of democratic principles.
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Mrs. Kamarck said: "Part of what's going on is that Clinton came out of the gubernatorial wing of the Democratic Party." Mr. Clinton took more than the PPI's policies with him to the campaign.
He took Bruce Reed, who was the DLC's director of communications, to be the campaign's issues director. He tapped the PPI's director of economic studies, Robert J. Shapiro, to be one of his key economic advisers. He relied heavily on the think tank's policy expertise.
Mr. Clinton's three key speeches on economic policy, the "new covenant" of reciprocal responsibility between government and individual, and on foreign policy were all crafted at the PPI. His campaign book, "Putting People First," was based on PPI ideas.
When he won the election, Mr. Clinton appointed Mr. From to head his transition's domestic affairs team. Mr. Reed became deputy domestic director.
The president of PPI, William Marshall III, works on foreign policy and welfare reform for the transition. Mr. Shapiro is on the economic team. Mrs. Kamarck is focused on campaign finance and family affairs.
No other single group has such representation and so much influence on the Clinton transition, or is likely to play such an extensive role in formulating the administration's policies.
Mr. Marshall sits in his office on Capitol Hill, a block behind the Library of Congress. A copy of "Mandate for Change," still warm from the printers, is on his desk. Outside, the young staff is bustling to prepare today's launch of the book and the DLC's annual dinner tomorrow.
"I assume I will lose everyone with talent around here," he says, reflecting the general expection that the Clinton administration will tap the PPI experts to fill key policy positions. Mr. Marshall is the archetypal "new Democrat," fortyish, intelligent, informal. He has a B.A. in English and history, and is a former journalist and congressional staffer.
His own major contribution to "new Democrat" thinking is the notion of voluntary national service, which advocates that recipients of student loans or other government aid be allowed ++ to pay back their debt through public work rather than with cash. He co-wrote a book about it in 1986, but the idea only really caught on when Mr. Clinton promoted it during the campaign.
Alternative to liberalism
"The Clinton message has been powerfully shaped by his experience as chairman of the DLC and his association with this movement," he says. "Whatever it is, it is the alternative to the old liberalism that has dominated the party for the past generation."
The DLC now has 30 affiliates around the country. This network, says Mr. Marshall, will help sustain Mr. Clinton through difficult times. At the same time the PPI will continue to pump out a steady stream of fresh ideas, analyses and research.
In an office along the corridor, Jeremy D. Rosner, 34, the PPI's domestic policy specialist, looks forward to helping Mr. Clinton enunciate a new government philosophy for the country.
"All of us have spent a good part of our lives wandering in the wilderness. It's really nice to come to a clearing with some sunlight."