A Nostalgia for The Consensus Of the 1990s
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page A01
BOSTON, July 28 -- John F. Kerry as yet has no catchy phrase for his campaign. He has not laced three words together such as "putting people first" in a way that echoes, nor proposed to "build a bridge to the future," nor unleashed a new label such as "compassionate conservative" into the national conversation.
Yet if the Democratic nominee is still missing a slogan, he has gradually revealed a message. His candidacy stands for The Restoration.
Beneath the personal storms of Bill Clinton's presidency, certain ideas about national governance reigned so sturdily within the Washington policy and intellectual establishment, even among many Republicans, that they provoked scant argument during the 2000 election campaign. Four years later, the belief that President Bush has rashly defied cherished assumptions -- about the preeminence of fiscal balance at home, about how to manage U.S. alliances abroad -- has energized disparate wings of the Democratic Party in ways that Kerry's cautious platform and sober campaign style might not have done under other circumstances.
This anger at what they regard as Bush's radicalism, as well as faith in Kerry's ability to reverse it, has lured top Clinton administration officials to Kerry's side as the policy engines of this campaign, creating what amounts to a government-in-waiting.
Restoring the policies and personnel of the 1990s is by no means an official theme of the Kerry campaign. As in the case of other presidential challengers, Kerry and his advisers say, Kerry's emphasis is on new ideas for the future, a theme he will likely strike hard when he presents himself to a large national audience for the first time, during his Thursday night acceptance speech.
To date, however, polls and voter interviews suggest that the Democrat is not clearly linked in the public's mind to any specific policy initiative the way Bush was associated with tax cuts four years ago, or as Clinton was with health care or "ending welfare as we know it" in 1992.
Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, said on Wednesday that voters will become more familiar with what the campaign regards as innovative ideas to expand health care coverage and promote energy independence. But she agreed that a dominant theme of Kerry's candidacy is the argument that "the Bush administration has been a radical departure" from a 1990s consensus about "things that Americans want to do together."
The language of restoration is woven throughout Kerry's campaign. In what his campaign billed as a major statement of the candidate's values, Kerry told the Democratic Leadership Council this spring that his agenda is "not a new way or a third way -- it's the right way to lead America and make America strong again."
That speech, like many he delivers, was laced with references to "responsibility" -- 10 mentions in all -- on issues ranging from the budget to Iraq to relations with allies. Meanwhile, Tad Devine, a Kerry communications strategist, said the campaign hopes one message voters will take from the convention is Kerry's commitment to "restoring respect for America in the world."
This subtext of restoration is most evident in the personalities who have gravitated to Kerry. In economic policy, among the anchors of his brain trust are three pillars of the Clinton team: former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, former deputy Treasury secretary Roger Altman and former White House economic adviser Gene Sperling. Clinton's top domestic policy aide, Bruce Reed, has been an important collaborator on Kerry's agenda.
On foreign policy, former Clinton official Richard C. Holbrooke is an important adviser, as was former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, until he ran afoul of controversy last week. Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined 11 retired generals and admirals in endorsing Kerry at the convention Wednesday night.
Invariably, these people describe Bush and Vice President Cheney as in the grip of exotic ideas -- such as a preemptive war against terrorism and tax cuts even amid large deficits -- and say Kerry would return to more familiar assumptions.
Rubin, at a luncheon with reporters Tuesday, asserted that Bush's tax cuts, without corresponding cuts in spending, have left the country facing its most worrisome fiscal circumstances in decades. Rubin, who was a favorite of many Republicans during the 1990s boom, said that the decision to permanently reduce top rates has threatened chronic deficits, which have alarmed even his conservative business colleagues. If Kerry is elected president, Rubin said, his first task would be "to try to restore the type of [business] confidence we had in the 1990s."
Former defense secretary William J. Perry was a notably apolitical Pentagon chief during the Clinton presidency, but he has jumped vigorously into the effort for Kerry. Because of Bush's handling of the Iraq war and the resentments he has stoked among allies, Perry told the convention crowd on Monday, "I have never been as worried about the management of our country's security as I am today."
Holbrooke said the Bush administration stands for "extremist ideas," such as acting unilaterally, that have percolated within certain circles for decades but that "never had a voice in the policymaking bodies of the executive branch."
Kerry "would return to a bipartisan consensus that governed American foreign policy from Franklin Roosevelt to Clinton, including [Ronald] Reagan," Holbrooke said.
The question, in the view of Republican thinkers, is whether such cautious centrism is a credible response to a world that changed radically on Sept. 11, 2001.
Another question is how the gulf between Bush and Kerry on principles plays out in practice. Though his supporters believe the Democrat's values and priorities are dramatically different from the president's, his specific issue differences are often narrow and nuanced.
On Iraq, for instance, Kerry does not propose to overturn Bush's policy. He voted to give Bush authority for the Iraq war, and he agrees that bringing long-term stability to the nation is essential. Kerry promises only that he would get better results recruiting allies to the cause.
On the budget, likewise, Kerry's denunciations of Bush's deficits are clearer than his proposed remedies. Kerry has said he would repeal tax cuts on people making more than $200,000 a year -- but maintain lower taxes for 98 percent of other taxpayers. His proposed spending increases -- on things such as health care -- have been outlined in detail, but not his planned cuts, leaving uncertain at best what would happen to the deficits that Rubin has called alarming.
Kerry's supporters say the most important difference between Bush and Kerry, in the end, is less ideological than the way their minds approach policy decisions. This campaign, like the 21-year Senate career that preceded it, has revealed the Democrat as a man who gravitates instinctively to a world of experts, and who regards problem-solving as a matter of mastering complexity and detail. Radical departures from consensus are not Kerry's style.
Bush, as described in numerous accounts over the past four years, is often contemptuous of Washington's smart-set consensus. He approaches problems with an eye not to detail but to finding the essential principle at stake in a decision -- then sticking forcefully to that decision once he has made it.
Jonathan Winer, a longtime aide in Kerry's Senate office in the 1980s and 1990s, said the election presents a choice between "faith-based policymaking versus empirically based policymaking."
When Kerry is confronting a choice, he added, "it's a series of questions, questions, questions."
Rubin, who knows Kerry less intimately than Winer does, said he was struck by the same thing during an economic policy discussion in March. "He's pushing you to disagree," he recalled, and he kept pressing for more detail about risks and unintended consequences. " 'Yeah, but if we do that, what happens over here?' "
Rubin said it is a style of analysis that is "enormously reminiscent of what it was like to be with President Clinton."
So, too, is some of the criticism of Kerry. Critics have said Kerry's penchant for deliberation and nuance is less a sign of rigorous thinking than of equivocation and a desire to game out the political angles of any question.
Winer said this criticism is unfair. "He's cautious about making decisions and using power too quickly -- not about making decisions and using power," Winer said.
One measure of the Thursday speech, Kerry strategists acknowledge, is whether Kerry can make this distinction clear, and show that the principles of the past decade have relevance in the next one.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company