Kondracke: Moderate Graybeards Need a Top 10 Agenda. Here’s One

Posted January 2, 2008 at 1:37pm

While the political world is fixated this weekend on what the Iowa caucus results mean for New Hampshire, something really useful could be unfolding at the University of Oklahoma.

[IMGCAP(1)]That’s where a bipartisan group of moderate ex-politicians is gathering to discuss how to solve the top policy problems facing America.

Advance publicity has focused on the possible third-party presidential candidacy of one participant, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he said rather definitively in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, “No, I will not run for president. But I will speak out to try to get people to really focus on the issues and to get rid of partisanship and special interests.”

If Bloomberg meant what he said in the absence of a centrist Independent presidential candidate, what the nation needs is a moderate, “post-partisan” agenda pointing to solutions for the country’s most pressing problems and a group of wise men and women willing to advocate for them aggressively.

That’s what could start to emerge from the gathering in Oklahoma called by former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.), now OU president.

The graybeard group includes former former Sens. William Cohen (R-Maine) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who are planning a separate bipartisan issues effort; plus ex-Sen. Bill Brock (R-Tenn.), also a former GOP national chairman; former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (R); retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.); and ex-Sens. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.).

Ideally, the group could get behind something like a list of 10 Big Things That Need to Get Done. Here’s a potential list:

1. At last, provide American children with world-class public education. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the landmark report “A Nation At Risk,” and still one-third of U.S. children — and half of minority children — don’t finish high school, only a third are proficient in reading and math, and U.S. kids rank far behind the rest of the developed world in math and science.

In a competitive world economy, this is a recipe for the collapse of the American standard of living. The Cohen-Nunn graybeards ought to back strengthening the No Child Left Behind law and promote a grand bargain for teachers and principals — professional pay for professional accountability.

2. Provide universal early-childhood education. Every study on the subject demonstrates that the most cost-effective way of closing the nation’s inequality gap — which will produce a mounting economic burden on productive workers in the future — is quality pre-school preparedness. Well-off parents can provide their kids with pre-school, but the government should guarantee it for poor kids.

3. Double federal support for basic scientific research. Congress at last has approved increases for the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department, but actually cut biomedical research.

4. Make Social Security solvent with another grand bargain: Shave benefits for future retirees by indexing them to inflation, not wage rates; lift the income cap on payroll taxes to provide added revenue; and establish a personal savings account system atop Social Security that eventually could be part of it.

5. Means-test Medicare benefits and use the soon-to-be-insolvent Medicare system to prod the U.S. health care industry toward rewarding providers for keeping people healthy, not simply treating illness.

6. Reform the U.S. health care system by making private insurance coverage mandatory, with tax credits available for people and small businesses that can’t afford premiums. Partly meet the cost by eliminating tax breaks for so-called “Cadillac” health plans. Get all medical records computerized and make data on hospitals, drugs, treatments and doctors available online.

7. Control America’s borders once and for all — with fences, where needed. Provide legal opportunities for guest workers and avenues for illegal immigrants to earn legal status. Also, expand visa opportunities for skilled workers, especially scientists, and provide federal impact aid to communities especially burdened by illegal immigration.

8. Advance the twin causes of energy independence and reducing greenhouse emissions by enacting an escalating carbon tax. Encourage all forms of available alternative energy, including nuclear power. Expanding research into “frontier” alternatives such as “clean coal,” cellulosic ethanol, hydrogen and fuel cells, and expand domestic oil drilling as a temporary alternative to foreign sources.

9. Rebuild America’s infrastructure — highways, bridges, railroads, airports and air traffic control, waterways and urban utilities — with maximum possible use of private funding and competition to improve efficiency.

10. Reform America’s tax laws to make them fairer and simpler and encourage savings and investment, rather than consumption. One possible model is the New America Foundation’s proposed “progressive consumption tax,” which would base taxes on the difference between income and savings, with rates rising with income.

This is a domestic policy list. The graybeards might also want to recommend a new American foreign policy that would include a bigger active-duty military trained for “nation building” and counter-insurgency, much-improved intelligence and expanded foreign aid and free trade, plus forceful — but sometimes coercive — diplomacy.

Besides a policy agenda, the most useful immediate product from Oklahoma would be a joint declaration of “Enough, Already!” about the excessive polarization of American politics — the poison that makes it impossible for Republicans and Democrats to agree on fixes for any of America’s big problems.

It’ll be unfortunate if no one runs for president on a platform of centrist, grand-bargain solutions to America’s problems. If so, the graybeards need to speak loudly, form alliances and rally a public that is fed up with polarized gridlock.