Obama Needs to Put Out an "Ideas Wanted" Sign

Washington Matters

Obama Needs to Put Out an "Ideas Wanted" Sign

President-elect Barack Obama needs to pull off a very difficult trick -- act aggressively and bring about change, especially on economic issues, while governing from the middle. He has pledged to do that by seeking out creative, pragmatic solutions to problems regardless of their ideological roots. He's in luck -- some of the most interesting ideas for rejuvenating struggling economic areas and spurring entrepreneurship come from conservative and mainstream Republicans. And some of those folks are looking for work.

Two of the few areas where conservative and centrist Republicans and moderate Democrats cooperated consistently over the last decade are the intertwined issues of poverty and economic development.

After all, President Bill Clinton may have been in the White House when the historic welfare reform bill was enacted in 1996, but it was passed by Republicans, who seized control of Congress in 1994. And because the legislation dumped the concept of welfare as an automatic entitlement and used the threat of having benefits cut off to move people into jobs and job training programs, it was attacked by most liberal Democrats. That measure contained some of the GOP's pet ideas for dealing with poverty, including giving state and local governments far greater power to experiment with programs. It also provided support to welfare recipients to help them get off and stay off welfare.

Conservatives also supported a variety of programs intended to help poor communities recover economically by designating them as "renewal zones" that provide tax incentives, economic support and relief from some regulations. Many conservatives also embraced the concept of "asset building"  -- encouraging, instead of punishing by taking away government support, poorer people who have savings, a home or a small business. A principal tool of asset building is the individual deposit accounts, a special savings account that is protected from taxes and are often matched by governments or private foundations to help people save for college or training classes, a down payment for a home or to start a business.

I thought about these concepts (and there are many other related ones floating around at think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the New America Foundation) after reading a piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks last week. Brooks, a very undoctrinaire conservative, was dreaming aloud, describing his ideal Obama administration -- one where "the people there will be ostentatiously pragmatic and data-driven. They'll hunt good ideas like venture capitalists. ... [T]hey'll use that language of decentralized networks, bottom-up reform and scalable innovation." What especially caught my eye was his hope that Obama's pledge of bipartisanship won't mean picking just "a few token liberal Republicans in marginal jobs" but include some serious and creative Republicans. Among names he mentioned were former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., former Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., and former CBO chief and McCain campaign economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

Talent and LaHood were both elected to the House during the GOP Revolution and played very different roles. Talent helped author the welfare reform bill and is one of the policy powerhouses behind conservative approaches to community development. He landed at the conservative Heritage Foundation after being defeated in 2006. LaHood, one of the few members of either party to consistently preach -- and practice -- bipartisanship and civility in the increasingly partisan and uncivil House, retired this year. His bipartisanship served him well as he supported and pushed a number of economic revitalization programs aimed at helping his struggling Rust Belt district. Holtz-Eakin clearly can be a partisan, as he showed during the campaign, but he is a no-nonsense fiscal hawk who repeatedly called out the GOP Congress on its various attempts to hide the real costs of various programs during the years Republicans controlled Congress while President Bush was in the White House.

All three of these men have their convictions, but all three have a proven record of working across the aisle. Best of all, all three are creative thinkers whose work has produced results and gained believers of both parties.