Two Cents Plain

Have you ever sat down in restaurant, scanned both sides of the menu, then flipped to the back hoping there’d be another row of choices? That’s how I’ve felt after watching every Democratic debate of Campaign 2004. I’m not particularly impressed with what’s offered, but there’s no column three.

"It would be kind of amusing," one long-time Democrat told me after the last debate, "if it weren’t so damned important."

Whether you decide to vote for President George Bush or his opponent come November, it’s in the nation’s interest to have a real debate that presents fresh ideas, a clear vision of how to repair America’s deepest ills and a detailed plan that has a snowball’s chance of getting there. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s only one man out there doing that, and his name isn’t Clark, Dean, Kerry or Edwards. It’s Matt Miller.

In his new book, "The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals Can Love" ($26, Public Affairs), Miller presents and supports a remarkable thesis: For two cents on the national dollar, every American could have health insurance, every school could be repaired and stocked with the best teachers and every full-time worker would get a real living wage.

Take universal health care: Miller eschews both the liberal single-payer plan and the let-them-eat-HMOs approach that leaves 40 million Americans uninsured. He proposes new tax subsidies for the purchase of private health insurance policies from among competing private plans. This is almost identical to plans put forward by former Democratic candidate Bill Bradley and George W. Bush’s father. For about $80 billion, liberals would get coverage for all, but have to give up the fantasy that private industry could be circumvented. Conservatives would get an efficient market system, but have to give up the idea that government’s can’t or shouldn’t provide health care to all.

The beauty part of Miller’s idea is that he’s figured out how to pay the bill. Two percent of the Gross Domestic Product works out to $220 billion. Even with all that investment, federal spending would remain about what it was under President Ronald Reagan. Miller doesn’t add spending, he shifts priorities. For example: out go egregious examples of corporate welfare (savings: $25 billion), in comes a 60 cents-per-gallon gas tax to detox our oil-addicted nation (revenue: $60 billion). Miller would cancel the portion of Bush’s tax cut going to the well-off (savings: $70 billion) and channel some $30 billion now going to the poor through bureaucratic programs into direct cash wage supplements that give poor workers more of a living wage.

Perhaps just as important, Miller figured out how to get the swinging pendulum of the left-right debate to hang plumb. Miller, a columnist who is also "The Center" of KCRW-FM’s "Left, Right and Center" radio talk show, has put forward a policy for the era of the metrosexual: tough and caring, idealistic and pragmatic, centrist but hardly pareve.

"He has synthesized a lot of different ideas, and each one has been systematically thought through," Milken Institute economist Glenn Yago told me. "The ideas are post-partisan."

Miller, 41, seems to be of a piece with that description. Raised in Rye, N.Y. and Greenwich, Conn., Miller is the son of a Headstart teacher mother and a businessman father. His mother leaned toward traditional liberal Jewish Democrat, his father Republican.

"That’s why I come by the third way honestly," he joked.

His career has included private enterprise, government service (he was a Clinton administration economic aide), and of course punditry.

Now, though, Miller wants to found a movement. What we need, Miller told me, is "a critical mass from both parties that could lead from the center out." But Miller’s ideological dispassion, which is so appealing, may be too cool to rouse the rabble. For all the book’s exposure, there is still a good chance that Miller’s ideas won’t catch fire much beyond the top 2 percent of the population.

Miller’s Web site ( offers a grass-roots opportunity for meet ups, those Internet-facilitated gatherings that provided the kindling for Howard Dean’s campaign, but so far 14 people have signed on. (By way of contrast, 304 have signed on for the "Ralph Nader in 2004" meet ups, heaven help us.) No doubt the "leadership and followership" that Miller hopes his ideas will generate will come from a certain swath of our society, and I suspect American Jews will form a large part of it.

An American Jewish Committee poll released this week offers further proof. The annual opinion survey found that 51 percent of Jews identify as Democrats, 16 percent as Republicans and 31 percent as independents. Some 44 percent describe themselves as liberal, 27 percent as conservative and the rest as "moderate, middle of the road." Single decimals on either side placed themselves on the far right or far left. A people born in the Middle East has migrated back toward the middle, though there has been precious little leadership or rhetoric there to grab on to.

Enter Miller, with a plan uniquely suited to the kind of educated, well-off people who would vote for Clinton but go almost 40 percent for Schwarzenegger, who join country clubs and the American Civil Liberties Union, who drive SUVs across town to celebrate Earth Day. It’s hardly surprising then that Miller is himself a child of that People.

"I’ve tried to combine the best of liberal and the best of conservative thinking," he told me. "The debate has been that these are utopian liberal dreams, and that’s just not right. If we want to do it, we can do it."

He’s right, we can.

Matt Miller will speak about his book at the Los Angeles Public Library on Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. For more information call (213) 228-7025.