THE NEW PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE
Edited by Lamar Alexander and Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Hudson Institute, 357 pp., $12.95 (paper)
In large part because they are selling themselves as much as their ideas, presidential candidates like to campaign on broad themes rather than a laundry list of specifics. Yet in order to be judged sincere by the voters and serious by the press, a candidate must have a coherent set of proposals dealing with issues as diverse and complex as taxes, arms control, welfare, and education.
To generate these proposals, candidates turn to experts for policy ideas.
One such candidate, and first out of the gate with a book tied to his run for the top office, is former Tennessee governor and US Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.
Alexander has just edited a collection of essays entitled ''The New Promise of American Life,'' the product of a two-year project he headed at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank. The book's 20 contributors include co-editor Chester Finn on ''governmentalism,'' William Kristol on traditional values, and Howard Baker on foreign policy.
''The New Promise of American Life'' is billed as a response to ''The Promise of American Life,'' written in 1909 by Herbert Croly (founder of the New Republic magazine). Croly's book outlined the progressives' vision for the new 20th century; Alexander's presents a critique of progressivism and a conservative blueprint for the 21st century.
Croly began by noting the obvious: Life in the United States was becoming more and more centralized. Advances in travel and communication were linking once-isolated communities. Corporations, labor unions, and cities were growing, while small businesses, family farms, and small towns were withering. Only the federal government, Croly argued, could stand up to these new combinations of power and represent the interests of individual Americans. In his words, ''the national advance of the American democracy does demand an increasing amount of centralized action and responsibility.''
Croly's call for a larger, more active federal government set the stage for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. As a result, according to Alexander, the federal government ''has grown too big, too meddlesome, too greedy, too controlling.'' Even worse, relying on Washington has weakened the fundamental institutions of American life, the family, church, neighborhood, and school.
Alexander sees the Republican rout in the 1994 elections as proof that Americans have rejected the vision Croly outlined.
What kind of United States do Alexander and his fellow contributors envision? Issues that truly require government involvement would be handled at the lowest level of government possible. Some federal agencies would be eliminated and most of the rest would be moved out of Washington. Congress would have shorter sessions - Alexander's call of ''Cut their pay and send them home'' has become famous - and term limits to keep it responsive to voters.
Economic policy would aim to unleash private enterprise through lower taxes, which would be tied to consumption rather than income to encourage saving. Social Security would change from a government-run trust fund to a system of mandatory private retirement accounts.
Social policy would be colorblind, with no special preferences on the basis of group identity. There would be more intensive efforts against illegal immigration but no retreat from legal immigration. Social welfare tasks would be shifted from government agencies to private charities, which would dole out moral advice along with material aid. Career criminals would encounter unsympathetic judges and long prison sentences regardless of prison overcrowding. Public education would feature school choice for parents and rigorous standards for students.
Foreign policy would be based on a commitment to existing alliances and to the United Nations, though efforts would be made to reform the latter. Foreign military intervention would be considered only if allies were threatened or the risks were small. The United States would back the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but, just in case, would also deploy a limited ballistic-missile defense system. Free trade and tariff-lowering trade agreements like NAFTA would be supported.
A few years ago, these ideas would have been considered radical. Yet the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that today they may not be enough to change Alexander's long-standing image as a moderate.
The book's support for free trade and immigration, for example, won't please some red- meat conservatives. On the other hand, because most of the book's proposals appear under the names of other contributors, Alexander need not embrace them all.
Alexander's biggest strength may be personality rather than policy. Republicans have to worry that anyone conservative enough to win the nomination will be too mean to win the election. Here, Alexander seems to have an edge. Following Reagan's example, he and the other contributors leaven their attacks on government with repeated praise of the American people and the American dream.
Running against big government won't hurt Alexander either. Contributor Francis Fukuyama points out in his essay on immigration that ''it is all too easy to make immigrants scapegoats for social problems that native-born Americans have brought upon themselves.'' Government is an easy - and at present hugely popular - scapegoat, blamed in this book for every social and economic ill.
Yet, it can be argued, seeing government as the nation's only problem is no more realistic than Croly's belief in government as the only solution. Meanwhile, the centralization he described has become not just national but global.
The ideas Alexander has assembled, while politically astute, are open to the charge of being more an attempt to escape from the future than a commitment to face it. To prosper in a shrinking world, the nation will need more than free enterprise, private charity, and local self-government. It will need an effective federal government.
Alexander has assembled an impressive list of ways to cut government, but he has yet to explain how, and for what goals, he would make government work.