Tennessean Tries to Make His Point to Public Lamar Alexander Is First Republican Presidential Candidate to Detail His Policies in a Book Series: THE RACE FOR PRESIDENT. the Candidates State Their Case. A Run for the Presidency Now Practically Requires a Candidate to Write a Book. for Voters, It Offers a Chance to Consider a Candidate's Positions at Length - Far from the Maddening Soundbite. This Is the First in a Series of Reviews of Books by the 1996 Presidential Candidates

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THE NEW PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE

Edited by Lamar Alexander and Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Hudson Institute, 357 pp., $12.95 (paper)

In large part because they are selling themselves as much as their ideas, presidential candidates like to campaign on broad themes rather than a laundry list of specifics. Yet in order to be judged sincere by the voters and serious by the press, a candidate must have a coherent set of proposals dealing with issues as diverse and complex as taxes, arms control, welfare, and education.

To generate these proposals, candidates turn to experts for policy ideas.

One such candidate, and first out of the gate with a book tied to his run for the top office, is former Tennessee governor and US Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.

Alexander has just edited a collection of essays entitled "The New Promise of American Life," the product of a two-year project he headed at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank. The book's 20 contributors include co-editor Chester Finn on "governmentalism," William Kristol on traditional values, and Howard Baker on foreign policy.

"The New Promise of American Life" is billed as a response to "The Promise of American Life," written in 1909 by Herbert Croly (founder of the New Republic magazine). Croly's book outlined the progressives' vision for the new 20th century; Alexander's presents a critique of progressivism and a conservative blueprint for the 21st century.

Croly began by noting the obvious: Life in the United States was becoming more and more centralized. Advances in travel and communication were linking once-isolated communities. Corporations, labor unions, and cities were growing, while small businesses, family farms, and small towns were withering. Only the federal government, Croly argued, could stand up to these new combinations of power and represent the interests of individual Americans. In his words, "the national advance of the American democracy does demand an increasing amount of centralized action and responsibility."

Croly's call for a larger, more active federal government set the stage for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. As a result, according to Alexander, the federal government "has grown too big, too meddlesome, too greedy, too controlling." Even worse, relying on Washington has weakened the fundamental institutions of American life, the family, church, neighborhood, and school.

Alexander sees the Republican rout in the 1994 elections as proof that Americans have rejected the vision Croly outlined.

What kind of United States do Alexander and his fellow contributors envision? Issues that truly require government involvement would be handled at the lowest level of government possible. Some federal agencies would be eliminated and most of the rest would be moved out of Washington. Congress would have shorter sessions - Alexander's call of "Cut their pay and send them home" has become famous - and term limits to keep it responsive to voters.

Economic policy would aim to unleash private enterprise through lower taxes, which would be tied to consumption rather than income to encourage saving. …