Alice Rivlin, a woman who held every leading fiscal policy job in the country, saved the city of Washington, D.C. from financial ruin and served as the number two at the Federal Reserve, died on May 14th. Although I never came to know her well, she was exceptionally generous with me whenever I reached out. When I was a junior reporter for an affiliate of the Washington Times and she was an important policy scholar at Brookings, Rivlin took my calls and schooled me on fiscal policy and the budget process. When I was working for a Republican Senate Majority leader, she helped me navigate tricky budget issues more than once and showed up for a dinner on urban policy that I put together for my boss. (She was awesome there.) When D.C. Progress, a now-defunct D.C.-focused organization that originally created R Street’s corporate structure, held its first public event, she showed up to speak for the tiny new organization, offering compelling insights into public finance and the city’s future. She was always helpful and always had a good solution. Many tributes I’ve seen refer to her as a “problem solver.”
As the person who runs a think tank devoted to “real solutions,” she was someone I admired very much for that. My colleagues have similar memories. Phil Wallach, who worked with her at the Brookings Institution, told me: “She was an exemplary scholar-doer, a really serious thinker who got herself in the thick of a lot of very serious matters and did a tremendous amount of good for her country. The Congressional Budget Offices was shaped in her image, very much for the better.” Senior Fellow James Wallner likewise says: “Alice was a terrific intellect, individual and fighter. There are very few people like her in this world. She will be missed.” Vice President for Policy, Kevin Kosar, likewise remembers her humble yet intellectually powerful participation in Brookings’ Budget Roundtable: “She mostly listened. But when she spoke, everyone listened. Closely.”
All-in-all, to me, her career demonstrates two important truths: being a ‘problem solver’ isn’t unprincipled and it does require a lot of humility.
So, in her honor, I’d like to reflect briefly on these two truths. Let’s start with principle. Many people on the fringes of the right and left have come to reject the idea of compromise or have come to view “solutions” as a dirty word. Instead, they want to win every battle on exactly their own terms. Much of what Rivlin did, it strikes me, didn’t draw on this type of principle based in some conception of liberty or equity but instead drew on another—that of fiscal responsibility. Every impression I had of her suggested she was basically a New Deal liberal at heart. But she was not a believer in a big government that tried to do everything. For example, to then-liberal me, her 1993 book, Reviving the American Dream, which called for a federal government that did far less but did so with great energy, was a revelation that a lot of left-of-center goals could be achieved by smaller government. Getting Democrats like Bill Clinton to agree to real spending constraints (as she did) was an act of principle in defense of her desire for fiscal responsibility. So was, I believe, getting people like former speaker Paul Ryan to acknowledge that the major entitlement programs needed to be stabilized and preserved rather than wound down. (The Medicare reform outline she co-developed with Ryan is, I think, still the best way forward.) It wasn’t easy or a matter of “splitting the difference.” Rather, it was a matter of hard work and getting others to recognize the principles that she held. In many ways, I’d add, she was right. She realized that the continued existence of a welfare state of some type is both democratically popular and morally just. But she also knew that if the country can’t pay its bills, the future will not be good—no matter what your other core values are.
Second, I think her career shows the value of humility. She never ran for elected office and never held a cabinet position in the presidential line of succession. Although I learned from an obituary that she once wrote a piece for the Washington Post about the disrespect and discrimination faced by women in early 1970s workplaces, which must have drawn on personal experience, this type of personal reflection was rare. Her work was thick with data, smart analysis and common sense. My copy of Reviving the American Dream lacks an author photograph and, while she was happy to talk with the press, she wasn’t one for chit-chat or talking head punditry. When asked to stabilize the city of Washington, D.C., amidst a fiscal crisis, she was a quiet and calming presence in a city riven by race, divided by class and plagued by crime. In this environment, drawing little attention to herself, she managed to steer D.C. toward solvency. By the time her term ended, the city’s budget was in the black (it has been, more-or-less, ever since) and poised for a comeback that has only accelerated in recent years. When I first moved here almost exactly 21 years ago, D.C.’s population was barely above 500,000. As I write, it has just passed 700,000 and is now larger than it has ever been in my lifetime. The far-more-political Anthony Williams, who became mayor while Rivlin was overseeing the city’s finances, got most of the credit (and deserved some for sure) but it’s unlikely that one of America’s greatest municipal comebacks would have happened without Rivlin’s steady hand.
And there was something else special about Alice Rivlin: she accomplished everything as a think tank scholar. While she held hugely important public positions, she always returned to her institutional home at Brookings. Throughout her 60 years in Washington, far more were spent at Brookings than any other place. Those who might question if think-tank scholars can make a difference would do very well to look at her sterling example. I—and the rest of R Street—will miss her presence terribly. May her memory be a blessing.