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National Perspective | POLITICS

Democrats Courting High-Tech Industry

November 19, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Battling for the political allegiance of the burgeoning high-tech industry, an alliance of entrepreneurs and Democratic officeholders Wednesday launched an effort to design an agenda for accelerating America's transformation into an information-based "new economy."

Sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank with close ties to President Clinton, the "New Economy Task Force" aims to increase cooperation between Washington and high-tech companies on issues from education to patent policy--and at the same time deepen the links between centrist Democrats and this increasingly powerful and politically active industry.

"It's a constituency that is getting much more into politics," said Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, a political group that founded the PPI. "But I don't think it's a constituency that has settled on one side or the other."

Indeed, the timing of the PPI conference underscores the steady escalation in the competition between political groups on the left and right for support from the high-technology community, particularly in California's Silicon Valley.

Even as the PPI group was promoting government-industry partnerships with computer, communications and biotechnology executives in Washington, the libertarian Cato Institute was preparing to open a conference in San Jose today titled: "Washington D.C. vs. Silicon Valley."

That conference will reflect the widespread skepticism about government interference that has defined Silicon Valley's politics for most of its existence. The gathering is partially underwritten by Microsoft Corp., which is locked in a bitter antitrust battle with the Justice Department.

By contrast, the PPI conference embodied a recent receptivity in the high-tech industry to a centrist Democratic message that emphasizes fiscal discipline, opening markets abroad and support for public education.

"I don't detect here a lot of support for the right's view that the dawn of the information age means the twilight for government," said Will Marshall, executive director of the PPI. "We see an opportunity for a much more constructive partnership."

Even so, perhaps the most striking aspect of the conference was how heavily both the entrepreneurs and elected officials emphasized the limits of the partnership they're seeking.

Although the business leaders repeatedly said they want Washington to increase its spending on worker training and basic scientific research, several made clear they do not believe the high-tech industries need major new government initiatives to prosper.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a co-chair of the task force, struck a cautious note. In assessing the role of government in the new economy, Daschle said the task force should study first "how do we do the least possible harm" and only second "how do we foster it."

Even as paeans to the "new economy" have become common in political speeches, there remains uncertainty and disagreement about what exactly the idea means.

The PPI released a 50-page report that attempts to measure the economic change underway by tracking such measures as the growing percentage of workers who work in offices, the rising use of computers and the erosion of job security for many workers.

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