POLICY IS THE BEST HONESTY

POLICY IS THE BEST HONESTY... A lot of journalists get lured into the profession by the excitement—the chance to cover wars, natural disasters, political campaigns, or the lives of powerful people. I'm not immune to such inducements and have done a bit of all of the above. But most of my time in the business has been spent engaged in what might be called "policy vetting." Does a particular government policy work as advertised? Would a proposed new idea work if it were actually tried? This is not the most Hunter Thompsonesque form of journalism. But it's one I find endlessly fascinating, in part because it provides a bracing check on one's ideological biases.

For instance, as a center-left guy, I generally favor expanding global trade but fear its downward pull on American wages. So I'm sympathetic to toughening labor standards in international trade deals, an idea Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both have called for. But are such standards really enforceable? That's an open question. In our cover story this month, T. A. Frank takes a step toward answering it. He does so by letting us in on the failures and successes of the profession he used to work in: private-sector consultants who monitor wages and working conditions in foreign factories for major U.S. companies. Also in this issue, Greg Anrig explains why hard empirical evidence is increasingly leading conservatives to give up on one of their favorite ideas, school vouchers. And Michael Waldman makes the case—one liberals and conservatives ought to be able to agree on—for an ingenious new policy idea that is quietly catching on at the state level: legislation that would, in effect, kill off the Electoral College.

Waldman was my boss back when we both wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton. That was another experience in policy vetting. Modern White House speechwriters seldom have a direct hand in setting policy. Their job is mostly to find the words to sell proposals crafted by the various White House policy shops and approved by the president—a task that often forces the policy folks to think more clearly about what they're proposing. If I had any moral qualms about joining the administration in September 1998, they were not about the then-unfolding Monica Lewinsky investigation—I thought Washington's fixation on that scandal was a form of insanity—but the possibility that I might be asked to write speeches about policies that I thought were indefensible.

Thankfully, that never happened. The Clinton White House policy shops reflected the careful, obsessive wonkiness of the president himself. No proposal ever crossed my desk that didn't seem programmatically sound.

Well, almost none.