New Political Voice Is Taking Root in Robust Growth of Silicon Valley

All in all, last week was one to remember for Kim Polese, the president, CEO and chairman of the board of Marimba Inc., one sturdy stalk in the fertile field of start-up companies sprouting across Silicon Valley.

On Monday, Time magazine named her one of the 25 most influential Americans--right up there with Tiger Woods and Robert E. Rubin--for her role in shaping the evolution of the Internet. On Tuesday, as if to justify Time, Netscape announced that its latest Internet browser would include her company's software, which takes the drudgery out of exploring cyberspace by programming your computer to routinely download your favorite information, from baseball scores to the morning paper.

That means in a few months as many as 50 million people may be surfing the Web on Marimba's board. Not bad for a company that opened its doors only last year. "If you have focus and drive and zero in on what you're trying to do," said Polese, an irrepressibly optimistic 35, "you can accomplish some pretty incredible things in this economy, in this industry, right now."

In Silicon Valley these days, optimism is in full bloom. And why not? The weather is great, the streets are quiet, the bike paths are bustling and business is booming. The relentless application of Moore's law--the theory, so far uncontroverted, that the microchip will double in power every 18 months--is inspiring a local corollary: The number of millionaires here also appears to be doubling every 18 months, if not faster.

Cautious souls see some bumps ahead: Fierce competition squeezed profit margins for many of the biggest companies last year. But as the Internet becomes an inexorably more powerful presence, the long-term trend lines all point straight up. "What's going on here now will go down in world history as one of the most exciting eras ever," said Garth Saloner, a Stanford University business school professor.

Forget autos, Hollywood or steel; high technology now shapes American society more than any other industry. Business Week magazine recently calculated that computer, communications and software companies now account for more than one-fourth of the growth in the economy--far more than any other sector. And does any industry have a more pervasive impact on daily life?

What's been missing is a political voice commensurate with this social reach. But a constellation of Silicon Valley leaders clustered around premier venture capitalist John Doerr is now organizing an unconventional political group that aims to speak for this revolution. They hope to construct what Doerr calls "a new kind of political form"--less a hierarchical trade association than a national network of entrepreneurs from high-growth companies who will coalesce through e-mail and fax to support candidates, and lobby on issues like education and securities litigation reform.

Ideologically, the group intends to pitch camp firmly in the middle--"this group should end up personifying the vital center," said Wade Randlett, a Democratic political consultant helping to construct it. Most of the network's key figures (including Doerr, a registered Republican) endorsed President Clinton last year, but the organizers are working to beef up their bipartisan credentials by recruiting heavyweight high-tech Republicans before formally taking their venture public, probably sometime next month.

By the year 2000, these budding techno-pols aim to have emissaries in presidential campaigns on both sides. Still, their strongest bond is with Vice President Al Gore, who has already met with them five times this year, enlisting them behind the administration's education initiatives--and, of course, wiring his own connections. That investment is likely to pay off handsomely in money and endorsements when Gore boots up his own presidential campaign.

Yet that kind of conventional politicking may be the least of what this network can offer. Its real potential is to carry into the national debate the perspective of companies creating the new economy. That label is unavoidably amorphous--and sometimes pretentious in its arbitrary distinctions between "new" and "old" ways of doing business. But the nation's most forward-looking companies are, in fact, ordering themselves around a new set of Information Age business principles: decentralization, flexibility, constant customization, relentless innovation.

The most intriguing aspect of this new network is its desire to apply those principles to larger social questions--like rethinking education. Its members are already exploring ways to increase communication between home and school; at Gore's annual family conference in June, a task force including Polese and Marc Andreessen of Netscape intends to unveil a prototype program that will systematically deliver over the Internet personalized information about students from teachers to parents. They're seconding Clinton's national education standards as embodying another core principle of the new economy: measuring results as the first step toward improving performance.

Largely because of the breathless innovation here, the specter of national decline that haunted the 1980s has lifted. In its place has emerged the fear that the Information Age will quicken the polarization of America between an educated, affluent elite and an unskilled mass struggling to stay afloat. In the wired world, avoiding that division may be our greatest challenge. "There will be lots of jobs created and lots of jobs destroyed," Doerr acknowledged.

There is no monopoly on answers here. But there is an exhilarating confidence--now too rare in public life--in our ability to shape our own future. Polese started her business in the abandoned storage space of a defunct stationary store. A few months ago, her company moved down the block into a small office building. As soon as she cleared out of the old storage room, another Internet start-up moved in. Even a taste of that optimism and dynamism would be a welcome infusion for a Washington political debate now mired in gridlock and gloom.

Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday.

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