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Fiscal Scolds: The Next Generation

Cash prizes, a date with Bill Clinton: Pete Peterson recruits collegiate centrists

Young Republicans and College Democrats have their perks—the occasional trip to a state party convention, maybe—but they can’t hope to compete with young centrists. When a dozen college students came to St. Louis recently as part of a competition funded by the 85-year-old billionaire deficit hawk Pete Peterson, they were put up in the Ritz-Carlton, while the hundreds of other students attending the same conference stayed in humbler quarters. “Once Peterson opens the money faucet, it’s hard for him to close it,” joked one of the lucky ones, University of Texas business student Hamid Poorsafar. 

The students had not sought out such luxury. They had simply responded to a call that came across campus list-serves last year—a new contest, funded by the Peterson Foundation and dubbed Up to Us, under which students from 10 colleges would devise ways to “educate and engage” their classmates about the national debt and the threat it poses to their generation. The prize for the team with the most effective proselytizing: $10,000 and the chance to attend Clinton Global Initiative University, the annual youth-oriented counterpart to the former president’s huge philanthropic confab for grown-ups.

The invitation was a clarion for that brand of millennial too often overlooked amid stereotypes of starry-eyed Obama-ites and dweeby junior Karl Roves: The Very Serious Young People who, like their older counterparts, scorn labels, preach togetherness, and worry about the national balance sheet. People like Sam Gilman, a polished Georgetown Day School alum from Washington, D.C., now attending Brown. He is a self-described independent. His political models are Olympia Snowe and the members of the “Gang of Six” who sought a cross-aisle budget deal in 2011. And after a summer internship spent researching polarization at the Bipartisan Policy Center, he decided to found a campus group called Common Sense Action, to promote bipartisanship: His co-founders are a Texas Republican and New York Democrat. The group had business cards and a website, but it needed a project, and along came Up to Us with the ideal issue for above-it-all activism, the debt. “We’re very frustrated about the fact that we’re not only getting the short end of the stick but don’t even have a voice in the conversation,” Gilman said. “We’re trying to build a network of people who care about this.”

I met Gilman on the second day of the Clinton conference, when he and the other finalists gathered for a breakfast meeting in the Washington University field house where the conference was being held. It wasn’t hard to spot them—a circle of young people noticeably cleaner-cut (one even sported a bowtie) than the students congregated nearby for a tech-themed discussion. Now and then a longish-haired student newly arrived for the tech discussion would mistakenly join the fiscal hawks, and they’d send him away with a barely-suppressed tone of amour propre. Interlopers rebuffed, the young hawks held a sober discussion about the challenges of getting their classmates to care about the debt, led by a staffer from the organization hired by Peterson to oversee Up to Us—Net Impact, an outfit with heavy corporate backing (AT&T, Waste Management, Microsoft) that encourages young people to make change through the “power of business.”

The students from Washington-area colleges tossed off insider observations that awed Westerners like Poorsafar: “They were all like, ‘supposedly this is on the table,’ ‘supposedly the Republicans made a serious offer on this or that.’” After a group photo session outside, Gilman described for me his team’s efforts to do centrist consciousness-building at Brown University. It held a Rhode Island Fiscal Summit featuring as keynote speaker the financier Steve Rattner, a member of Fix the Debt, the Peterson-funded Washington lobbying group. It took pictures of students holding a white board on which they’d written thoughts on “what the debt means to me.” And it got students to sign a “Contract with the Future” that called for finding “compassionate ways to reduce entitlement commitments.” This did not go over so well with everyone: “One person said, ‘If you touch Medicare, don’t talk to me.’” Gilman said he kept his cool with this reply: “I don’t think that’s the right way to have a productive conversation about a sustainable future.”

Alas, the competition judges—Chelsea Clinton, George Stephanopoulos, and fiscal commission chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson—awarded Brown only second place. The gold went to the University of Virginia team led by Lena Shi, a genial Charlottesville native who describes herself as a “moderate” who believes “there are perspectives from both sides that are very helpful.” Her team had hosted Senator Mark Warner, the moderate Democrat, for a speech on the debt. (“Both sides have got blame on this,” he told students.) The team also held a workshop to coach classmates on personal savings, and a confab with the College Democrats and Young Republicans that produced a letter, with 200 signatures, on the need for Washington to “reach a compromise.”

Scoff all you want, but it’s not hard to see why Peterson is looking to the future. Polling suggests young people are still working out their thinking on fiscal matters—those 18-29 are more likely than older voters to say that government should be doing more, but also more likely to say that reducing the budget deficit is more important than maintaining Medicare and Social Security. “Young people have the most to gain and lose and we think they need to involved in the debate,” Peterson’s son Michael told me. “Many of them may not be aware of what they’re facing and what’s happening in the coming decades on our current fiscal path.”

For another thing, the present tense isn’t looking so great for the fiscal scold. Despite the well-funded machinations of Fix the Debt, the fiscal cliff passed without a grand bargain to reduce the deficit. The doomsaying has lost some urgency as deficit projections have started to ease. To top it all off comes word that the 2010 paper by two Harvard economists that has undergirded austerity efforts here and around the world was built on an Excel spreadsheet error.

Against all this, why not seek redemption in the young? Better yet, why not enlist the last president to balance the budget? With Peterson helping pay for Clinton’s St. Louis conference, Bill Clinton offered in exchange a staunch endorsement of Peterson’s message. In a private meeting with Up to Us contestants, Clinton affirmed their bipartisan instincts. “He brought up that he had talked recently with Eric Cantor and that they had a good discussion,” said Conrad Zbikowski, from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “It isn’t so much that [the parties] aren’t willing, it’s that they’re getting a lot of pressure from the bases on both sides.” This rang true to Poorsafar, the Texas student. “Scape-goating a particular party … defeats the progress of comprehensive reform,” he said. “I just really think that both parties need to work together and be mature adults.”

Clinton gave Peterson a bigger plug when he presented the competition winners to all 1,000 conference attendees. He warned the students about a possible spike in payments due on the debt if interest rates rise, and he hailed his “good friend” Peterson for taking up the fight. This brought onto the stage Peterson, who returned the praise, saying he considered Clinton “not simply a great president but the best post-president ever.” He warned the audience about the debt that “imperils your future” and called for a “special interest of the young, an Association of Young Persons, an AAYP.” Before being helped off stage, he offered yet more praise of Clinton, saying he was proof that “the constitutional amendment restricting presidents to two terms was a terrible idea.” 

Such chumminess between Clinton and Peterson makes one wonder whether the austerity advocates might find even more of an ear in a Hillary Clinton White House than they have in President Barack Obama’s. But that was not of immediate concern to the young fiscal hawks, who were busy getting to know each other. They had expected to see each other as rivals—“We came thinking it was like the Hunger Games,” said Poorsafar. But they came to bond over their shared mindset, one that had set them apart from peers back home. On the last night of the conference, they danced together to a live band that was playing at the Ritz. Or at least some of them did: “I was not dancing,” insisted Gilman. 

Ten days later, they were back to work: Most reconvened in Washington to plot how they could, as Gilman put it, “leverage the connections” going forward (Peterson assured them privately in St. Louis that he’d consider funding an ongoing campaign). They met with Warner and his staff. They discussed the UVA team’s plans for its $10,000 in prize money, which will likely include “debt-related internships” in Washington. They ended the day over grilled hamburgers at the Washington home of one of the students.

But they turned in early: Shi and the rest of the UVA team had to be at a Washington TV studio at 6 a.m. the next morning for four interviews organized by Peterson’s PR folks. One was with MSNBC, and one was with “Fox and Friends.”

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

Correction: Sam Gilman attended Georgetown Day School, not Georgetown Prep.