WASHINGTON - Some pundits tried to dismiss President-elect Bill Clinton's two-day economic conference last week as a Ross Perot-style "electronic town meeting" or a kind of "Bill Donahue Show."
The Wall Street Journal, for instance, editorialized a bit with the headline for its report about the first day of the conference: "Clinton Teach-in Offers Good Theater But Few Clues About Economic Plans."
The newspaper story went on to rather snidely opine that the "presidential teach-in is generating more public relations mileage than new clues to Mr. Clinton's economic plans. "
Unfortunately, those snappy observations miss the point.
So too did the bond trader who told a reporter last Tuesday that he and his colleagues had turned off the sound of the television set in the trading room. He said they were bored, presumably because the proceedings were not producing instant gratification in the form of fast answers to the nation's economic ills or details of Clinton's economic plans.
The 19-hour conference was not designed to make the country feel better about its future or to produce an immediate consensus on how to solve the nation's economic problems. Nor was it intended to be a proverbial trial balloon for Clinton to test public reaction to his economic plans.
But it was meant to raise the curtain on making the tough, if not impossible, decisions that must be made by Clinton in order to restructure the nation's economy.
And it succeeded well in what it set out to do.
It provided a good glimpse into the thinking of Clinton and his advisers. As moderator, Clinton listened, asked intelligent questions, and displayed intense curiosity about and knowledge of the federal government and its problems.
It also included a good mixture of participants from business, labor, and the academic world. On a negative note, though, Clinton organizers failed to include many representatives of state and local governments, which account for about 11 % of the nation's gross domestic product.
Similarly, Clinton and his advisers scrupulously seemed to avoid any discussion of raising taxes or what spending might have to be cut - two issues that will have to be part of any economic solution.
But the conference succeeded because it got a large cross-section of business and labor both interested and involved in spelling out the nation's economic problems and starting to look for possible solutions.
And it put those problems squarely on the table and broadcast them into the nation's living rooms.
More importantly, it set the stage for a public debate on the tough choices that lie ahead.