Brad DeLong’s Modest Proposal
In his blog today, Brad DeLong argued that TPC had been less influential over the past decade than the liberal Democratic think tank Center for American Progress. Brad's theory is that organizations such as TPC, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, and the Center for Budget & Policy Priorities have, essentially, been too wimpy to be effective. DeLong thus joins the camp of Paul Krugman (and Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich) in arguing that life in the middle-of-the-road makes you roadkill.
Brad knows his economics very well. Public policy, not so much.
This is how he describes what TPC does:
“TPC views its mission as (a) figuring out what the good policies are, (b) building a coalition for those policies from the center–starting with one Democrat and one Republican each of whom wants to be in the position of winning applause for putting policy substance above partisanship–and then building out from there, and (c) arguing that supporting bipartisan initiatives is a good way for legislators to raise their chances of reelection. To say “yes, right now the Democrats are being a lot more sensible than the Republicans” spoils the first step of that, and so is not something that TPC can say and remain true to its mission.’
The trouble is, Brad fundamentally misunderstands what we do. He got (a) right. Figuring out what good policies are is exactly what we try to do. And I’m glad he thinks we succeed. But we don’t do (b) and we don’t do (c). TPC doesn’t build coalitions of any kind—from the center or from anywhere else. We don’t play Noah, bringing pols two-by-two onto our policy ark. We, in fact, have no policy ark. Rudy Penner, one of our scholars, does have a sailboat. But I don’t think it is the same.
We gather and analyze data, present it in useful ways and without partisan spin, and tell politicians and the public about the likely consequences of tax policy. What they do with that information is up to them. Occasionally, they use it to design laws that have a shot at working.
Sometimes, advocacy groups use our data to make the case for one policy position or another. We wish them well. But it is not what we do.
I think Brad’s biggest error is his belief that we are bipartisan. We are not. We are proudly non-partisan. This is not the same thing. I don’t think it would be a good idea to elect 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans to the Senate, or that a President should seek middle-of-the-road solutions to all problems. As an organization, TPC does not think so either.
Our reputation for nonpartisanship is critical to what we do. It is why people across the political spectrum acknowledge our estimates are credible even as they sometimes grumble about what the results imply for their own policy views. If we lose that credibility by turning ourselves into DeLongian partisans, the data lose much of their value.
Our non-partisanship is what makes TPC so different from an outfit like the Center for American Progress, or the Heritage Foundation. For eight years, CAP was largely a Democratic government in exile—a place where mid-level Democrats could hang out, make connections, play with ideas, and work their way back into power. Not so different from the Heritage Foundation that does the same thing for Republicans. While all of us at TPC have our own personal views about who gets elected (some of which may surprise Brad), we have no institutional view. Really, we don’t.
So to Brad’s major point. Is partisan more effective than non-partisan? I’m not so sure. Has CAP changed the policy agenda in a big way? Call me after health reform.
Criticizing TPC for trying to build centrist coalitions for middle-of-the-road ideas is like panning Bruce Springsteen for not being able to hit a curveball. It ain’t even our game.