Robert Kuttner

The American Prospect, Part I

VTR Date: April 13, 2000

Guest: Kuttner, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert Kuttner
Title: “The American Prospect”, Part I
VTR: 4/13/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s program is something of a progress report on a school of thought and particularly on a publication that we first discussed here back several years ago. At that time I reminded my audience that when I began The Open Mind in 1956, the legacy of New Deal and Fair Deal Liberalism certainly still seemed to be embraced by a good many Americans. After all, John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” was just four years in the future to be succeeded in turn by Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”.

After that, to be sure, Liberal and Liberalism seemed almost to become and to remain dirty words. In their place the free marketplace, laissez faire and de-regulations, de-regulation, de-regulation became instead the mantra of modern political and economic life. Indeed, things stayed largely that way until the early 90s when a group of younger intellectuals symbolized by my guest today and by his now decade old publication, The American Prospect, came to shed a rather negative light once again on any supposed primacy of the marketplace and to set forth instead a preference for old-fashioned political and economic liberalism … full strength, not a watered down neo-liberalism.

Journalist, economist, Robert Kuttner is the co-Editor with Paul Star of The American Prospect, now a bi-monthly publication that has grown importantly over the past decade. And I want both to reprise his prophecy and final comment to me the last time he joined me at this table and to ask Mr. Kuttner whether hindsight gives him anything different to say today.

At that time he was quite direct. “I think”, he said, “for the next few years you’re going to find the political center defined by the likes of Bill Clinton and Al Gore doing a holding action, keeping the system from moving even further to the Right. And I think if you take a combination of re-building at the base and intellectual energy and political energy before we get the next era of a Great Society, or a New Deal. “So I think”, he said, “in the short run, which may be several years, the view that markets can do no wrong will probably continue to be ascendant. But I intend to fight it like hell”. And so I want to ask Mr. Kuttner whether he was prophetic or not.

KUTTNER: Well, thank you very much for having me back. Yes, I think the second Clinton Administration has been about at the same point on the political spectrum as the first Clinton Administration. I think the idea that markets can do no wrong is still very much ascendant. But I think we’re beginning to see some backlashes. I think we’re seeing the first big backlash in the area of health, where HMOs get in between patients and doctors, and patients don’t like that. Doctors don’t like it either. I think we’re seeing it, to some extent, in education where, on the one hand you’ve got the proponents of marketization really pushing vouchers, but on the other hand you’re already starting to see some abuses as corporations come in and try and see schools as a profit center. So I think the issue of where markets are appropriate, where they work, and where they don’t work, where you need regulation, where you need social provision, I think at least that issue is being engaged again. The Microsoft case, a very good case in point. Regulation serves the goal of competition … that’s old-fashioned anti-trust. And I think this point of view is no longer seen as quite as archaic as it was maybe earlier on.

HEFFNER: You’re not whistling in the dark now, are you?

KUTTNER: No. I mean I think the Democratic Party … and again the Democratic Party is somewhat centrist itself, but we’ve seen the Democrats in Congress and the House made gains for two consecutive elections. They’ll probably take back the House I would expect this Fall. But, it’s at the grass roots where the re-building really has to be done. I think it’s interesting that in April we’ve been seeing a lot of demonstrations, a lot of grass roots activity around the terms of engagement with a global economy. It’s the International Monetary Fund, too much in the pockets of the banks. Do we need some kind of international regulation of labor? And that view has become almost respectable, so I think the pendulum is beginning to swing back, but what’s going to pull it back is both ideas and also grass roots political activity. We’re not seeing it in Washington very much yet.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that … “we’re not seeing it in Washington.” Are you suggesting that Mr. Gore does not reflect this shift?

KUTTNER: No, I think for the most part Gore is, is pretty much the same as Clinton. I think it’s interesting … Labor Unions have invested very heavily in Gore, they’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting for Gore, politically on the campaign trail. They expect to be re-paid. Gore who is not particularly all that pro-Union has moved a little bit in their direction. But I think these politicians to some extent are weather vanes. And they’re centrists, and if activity resumes at the grass roots, then we’ll have more people elected who are more progressive and eventually we’ll get a President to the Left of Clinton/Gore.

HEFFNER: But if what you’re suggesting is true, a shift … why didn’t Bradley do better than he did. Or do you not identify Bradley with that shift.

KUTTNER: I don’t think Bradley was any more of a Liberal than Gore was. I think it was a different mix of particulars. That is to say, on trade, if anything he was even more of a laissez fare man that Gore was. If you go issued, by issue, by issue … the scorecard would add up to about the same Liberalism quotient, but with different particulars. And Bradley had a kind of diffidence, a kind of stiffness. There was a very cruel bumper sticker about 20 years ago when Elliot Richardson was running for, I think, Governor of Massachusetts and the bumper stick was, “A vote for Elliot, he’s better than you are”. And there’s a bit of that about Bill Bradley, a kind of patrician disdain that cost him, I think, the possibility of really waging a fight for the nomination. He didn’t quite have the common touch. So on the one hand he was running as an insurgent. And people liked that for a while. But on the other hand, he was rather disdainful in his manner. But I think if you look at his voting record, what he did in his 18 years in the Senate, he wasn’t any more Liberal than Gore, he was just playing the role of “outsider”. But that doesn’t make him a Liberal, any more than McCain is a Liberal.

HEFFNER: Now, you mentioned McCain. And, any you’ve written about, in The American Prospect this McCain phenomenon, and you’ve talked about your friends who, during the primary campaign were leaning, perhaps towards McCain or at least were so intrigued by him that you thought that perhaps they might even vote for him in the regular election.

KUTTNER: There was a moment during the primaries when Bradley had clearly faltered. And the one possible outsider candidate who stood a shot at getting one of the two major party nominations was McCain. And the prospect of just ‘blowing it up”, of shunting aside the entire Republican establishment who were terrified of McCain, was such an attractive prospect that for about two weeks there was a movement to cross-register among some Independents and Liberals and vote for McCain. But if you look at McCain’s voting record, except on the issue of campaign finance reform, he’s a quite conventional Conservative. Again, it’s the difference between the stance of outsider and the substance of what you stand for in terms of policy. On those issues, McCain was a fairly mainstream conservative Republican.

HEFFNER: And do you think he will have any influence in the actual campaign this year?

KUTTNER: No. No, I don’t. I think Bush will do what he needs to do to get some kind of endorsement. I think Bush is certainly against campaign finance reform of any kind. And barring the unlikely eventuality of Bush feeling that he has to put McCain on the ticket, which I think is very, very unlikely, I don’t see McCain having a great deal of influence.

HEFFNER: Let me, let me just go back to a question you might think is, is impertinent. What’s the circulation of The American Prospect?

KUTTNER: We’re about 28,000 and we’re hoping to grow at about 10,000 a year. We began publishing every other week in November. We began as a quarterly. And then we started publishing mid-1994 six times a year. And I think we felt that although we were successful as a kind of opinion leader publication, in order to really be on the radar screen, we had to be more topical. People said, “make it half as thick and twice as often”. So we made it four times as often and we think as a bi-weekly … National Review is a bi-weekly, New York Review of Books is a bi-weekly. You know you can get to a 100,000 circulation, and really be on the radar screen.

HEFFNER: Now, talking about radar screen … how many people are connected to that radar screen in reality. And I don’t mean the circulation and I don’t even mean in terms of numbers. I mean, if you’ll forgive me, to challenge your notion that there is a kind of grass roots shift or change in the conception of what the Democratic Party should be. And that’s why I asked you whether you were whistling in the dark. And now, in a sense I’m being so rude as to ask whether you and I are talking to ourselves.

KUTTNER: Well, let me give some hopeful indicators. For one thing the demonstration in Seattle, against the WTO, and I, of course, disassociate myself from the, from the bricks and all that … most of the people who were there were peaceful demonstrators. That was the first mass demonstration since the 1960s to really have an influence on public policy. And, of course, there will be follow-up demonstrations at other meetings of other institutions that really run the global economy. I think for the first time it created a real alliance between students and trade unions and environmentalists. To challenge the prevailing assumption of global laissez faire being the optimal way of organizing a society. Another leading indicator is that 1999, for the first time in the last 35 years, the Labor Movement did not lose a share of the work force, the fraction of workers who were in Unions didn’t increase, but it didn’t decline. And I think there’s some sense that the long, slow decline of organized labor has bottomed out. Organized labor is now really going after low paid service workers. I think there’s more activism on the part of students again. And this eventually, I think, translates into electoral influence. Now if we can just get campaign finance reform and we’re starting to get that in some states. It’s not happening in Washington, but it’s happening in places like Maine and Arizona, and individual cities like Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you could just get money out of politics so that we can return to the principle of one person, one vote I think there’s a potential of the country being rather more liberal than a lot of its leaders, who are influenced by, of course, the wealthy people who financed their campaigns.

HEFFNER: Do you thin that at any point in since the Industrial Revolution, since the Civil War, money has not been the mother’s milk of politics?

KUTTNER: Yes, I do. It’s very interesting. You can point to several cycles. I mean you have the “Robber Baron” era with Mark Hanna basically shaking down plutocrats on behalf of the Republican Party. And then you had the era of reform … 1907, I believe it was the Tillman Act said the corporations cannot contribute to political campaigns. And so during TR (Teddy Roosevelt) and Wilson Administrations, the influence of big money receded somewhat. It receded somewhat under FDR. And then it came roaring back, business invested very heavily in the Republican Party during the post war era, and this was offset, to some extent, by the power of the Labor Movement. And then, of course, you get Watergate. And the Federal Elections Campaign Act, and again, for about maybe 15 years, for maybe three or four Presidential elections, the law was more or less followed. And then this so-called “soft money” loophole was discovered, where if you give money ostensibly to the party, rather than to the candidate, or you give money to promote a cause ostensibly, rather than to promote a candidate, you can give unlimited amounts of money. So now, we’re up for another turn of the wheel where another reform has to happen to put big money back in it’s place. So I think it’s ebbed and its flowed.

HEFFNER: What do you think the possibility is now of changing the rules of the game?

KUTTNER: I think if change comes, it’s going to be more likely to occur at the State level. The State of Maine is the leader here. Maine has passed a so-called “clean elections” option where if you agree not to take big money and you qualify by getting lots of little contributions, five and ten dollar contributions, you can qualify for public money. And the genius in the Maine proposal is that if you’re opponent doesn’t go along with this, because under the First Amendment you can’t make your opponent disclaim any private money … but if your opponent says “I’m not going to take the public money, I’m just going to raise unlimited amounts of private money”, then the State will give the other guy as much money as the fella who’s taking the private money gets. So there’s no point in taking the private money. Now what you’ve got for the first time is a campaign this year in which nobody has to spend a lot of time raising money. And so instead of spending three-quarters of their waking hours in bed with special interest groups, and listening to people who have a lot of money to give, rather than listening to ordinary citizens, candidates can go about the democratic business of campaigning. I think that’s very helpful. And I think if this model works, we’re going to see more and more support for it in Washington.

HEFFNER: You think that it will work on the State level?

KUTTNER: I think it will work well enough. That is to say there will be leaks, there will be so-called independent expenditures where some interest group that favors a candidate will do ads that are really veiled advertisements, not just on the issue, but in favor of Candidate X and against Candidate Y. But I think it’s a lot better than what we’ve got. And I do expect it to work tolerably well at the State level. And, of course, if you look at the era after Watergate, or the era after the Robber Baron era, you don’t totally bottle up big money, but you bottle it up well enough so that it doesn’t overwhelm the power of voters.

HEFFNER: We seem to be rating, or there seem to be calls for unilateral disarmament, and that isn’t going to happen, is it?

KUTTNER: No, and I, I … unfortunately I think until the rules are changed and the Democrats have to go out and raise as much money as they can. But they also have to somehow reconcile that with motivating voters. Because ultimately the Left of center party sometimes gets elected by animating large numbers of voters. And the Right of center party has a kind of natural alliance between its program and its ability to raise big money. The Left of center party is really hobbled because corporations invest in the Democratic Party to be less progressive. Republicans get corporate money to be exactly what they want to be. So there’s a kind of asymmetry in the, in the ability to be true to your own message and your own values as a liberal party. And still raise enough money privately to be competitive.

HEFFNER: What do you think will happen in the next couple of years on the national level? Nothing?

KUTTNER: I think that if the Democrats take back the House and Gore is elected, you have a very good chance of getting enactment of something like the McCain/Finegold Bill which at least bans “soft” money. And that’s sort of the first step. I also think the courts are beginning to re-visit this. The Buckley-Vallejo decision of 1976 basically said that money is speech and recently I think that the courts have been willing to look at regulatory schemes that limit the power of, of big money, but still allow plenty of argumentation. And a lot of Constitutional scholars think that there is a way of doing this. “This” being campaign finance reform that would, in fact, pass muster with the Supreme Court.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that the court is moveable on this ….?

KUTTNER: Well, the courts have upheld some of these state schemes.


KUTTNER: In other words, if, if you don’t prohibit the raising of private money, but essentially you offer enough inducements so that the candidates only take public money, and you come down fairly hard on independent expenditures, “so-called “ that are not truly independent. Like the fellow who was a Bush crony, who poured a lot of money into the New York primary and concocted this phony “Republicans for Environmentalism”, which were really thinly disguised anti-McCain ads. I think the courts have been a little more tolerant on that and if the context were the context of broad campaign finance reform, that actually increased the power of, of free debate, I think you could come up with a system that would pass muster with the courts.

HEFFNER: If you were pressed, as a debater, to give the reasons … to be sympathetic, let’s put it that way … for a moment … with the position that Money is Speech, could you do it? How would you do it?

KUTTNER: You mean if I were to argue against myself?


KUTTNER: Because there’s an old line that a Liberal is someone who’s open minded, that he won’t even take his own side in an argument. I’m not sure I want to do that. I mean I can tell you what the other side said. The other side says that Money’s Speech. The other side says that my ability to buy television time, to propagate a certain viewpoint is just an extension of my free speech. And I think the counter to that is that …

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, before you get to the counter …


HEFFNER: … isn’t that true? You may counter it …

KUTTNER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … but isn’t that true in itself.

KUTTNER: Well, in the abstract but when you research … I think it’s a matter of degree, when you reach a point where it takes money to get into the game, then it flips over and money starts drowning out speech. And people who don’t have money, don’t get to exercise their speech. So the question is: “how do you, how do you create some countervailing power? Interestingly, you would think that one of the easiest remedies to this problem would be free television time. That way, even if Candidate X buys television time, Candidate Y gets free time. But I think the broadcasters lobby has been so powerful and incumbents have had such a vested interest in not wanting their challengers to get access to the microphone that the combination of incumbents of both parties and their reluctance to alienate their local broadcaster has kept this Bill shelved for decades.

HEFFNER: Well, you say “free television” time. There’s no such thing a “free” time, someone is paying for it, and it would be the broadcaster …

KUTTNER: Well, the broadcaster … I mean it’s often been said that a TV license is a license to print money, it’s been one of the most lucrative industries that there is. These are supposedly the public airwaves and if, as part of the price, as it were of having a broadcast license you had to give up a little bit of commercial revenue and give so many hours a year of “free” time, I say so be it. I mean this, this is a limited resource that nominally, at least, belongs to the public, is regulated as if it were public and I think as a quid pro quo there, there ought to be free time.

HEFFNER: Are you willing to set that argument aside and to say since television time is so important, broadcast time is so important, we, the people will buy that time. Someone has to pay for it. Why not “we, the people”?

KUTTNER: No. I think … I mean it’s like the oil companies drilling on public lands. I mean in effect the broadcasters are drilling for gold or for oil on the public airwaves, and just as we, we charge a small royalty when oil companies drill on the public lands, we should charge a small royalty for letting private broadcasters have the use of a public airwaves.

HEFFNER: Of course, we’re certainly further from that now then we’ve ever been.

KUTTNER: Well, I said these views are not majority views, but I’m going to fight like hell for them. And I think it, it logically makes sense. I don’t think you should have to subsidize broadcasters, most of whom make a very nice profits in order to get them to give a little bit of free time. Yes, we have been moving the other way, but thankfully it still is a democracy. If a political leader can come up with a program and a set of ideals that are convincing, we still have one person, one vote. We don’t have one dollar, one vote. And if you have a convincing leader the power of the vote, the democratic power of the vote could out-vote the power of money. And, if you go far enough back in history you will see that the pendulum swings and then it swings back and we’ve had a number of cycles. Arthur Schlesinger’s been saying that we’re due for another swing of the pendulum in the direction of greater public purpose. So I think it takes both activity at the grass roots and it takes convincing leadership. Now we had that in the thirties, we had that in the sixties. Should have had it in the nineties. Instead we got … we got Bill. And I would reiterate my point from four years ago. What we have is a holding action. He allowed the Republicans to make fools of themselves, he allowed Gingrich to overreach, he allowed the Republicans to put forth a program so radical that the people rejected it. And now I think we’re going to have to wait a little bit longer before the pendulum swings back further to the Left.

HEFFNER: Of course, I think it was back perhaps in the December, ‘99 issue when you spoke one way or the other, and you speaking about Bill Clinton …


HEFFNER: … you indicate a little more strongly the … what you consider to be the positive side of his contribution.

KUTTNER: Well, I think in that … in that column I tried to do a fair-minded stock taking of his strengths and his weaknesses. You know there’s an old, vicious anti-Semitic line that defines an anti-Semite as someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary. And I … I guess I can say that because I’m Jewish … the question is did Bill Clinton become more of a Republican than was absolutely necessary? Did Bill Clinton move further to the Right than he had to in order to keep the Republicans at bay? And I’ve had this argument in a lot of living rooms, between Clinton loyalists and people who feel betrayed by Clinton. And I think in some respects he was very, very astute tactically. And in other respects he moved further to the Right than he had to. He moved further to the Right than he had to on budget balance. He moved further to the Right than he had to on welfare reform in the sense that he should have held out for a more benign version of welfare reform. Not that we shouldn’t have gotten rid of AFDC. We should have. But there were people in his Administration that resigned in protest over this. The fact that the particulars of welfare reform are more draconian than they needed to be. And I give him great credit for giving the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves with. But I think he could have been a better progressive.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s clear, since you’re doing “on the one hand, and on the other” talking about those living rooms you argued this point in that we have to continue this. Our program is over now, but I hope you’ll stay where you are and let us do another one.

KUTTNER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today, Robert Kuttner. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.