Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- You can tell a lot about presidential candidates by the policy wonks they surround themselves with, especially the economic advisers. The Democratic presidential front-runners have brought in like-minded Wall Street financiers, economists and policymakers. But in some cases, others are thrown into the mix who have radically different ideas, and some of it may be sheer window dressing to appeal to the special interests they need to win the nomination.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is selling herself as someone who believes in expanding trade and opening up markets for U.S. goods. But she counts a fierce leftist opponent of free trade among her advisory panel, former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois opposed President Bush's proposed Social Security reforms for personal-investment accounts that would have allowed workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market. Yet one of the Harvard economists on his team likes the idea and has developed a full-blown plan to enact it into law.

Notwithstanding all this, a look at some of the other people on their teams provides a peek into the general direction they would take the economy if they won the presidency. While they've carved out more liberal positions throughout their political careers, urging increased spending, higher tax rates and more restrictive trade policies, some of their advisers are market-oriented, pro-trade deficit hawks.

Clinton's advisers are drawn mostly from President Clinton's economic team. They include former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, now a Wall Street financier; former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, who is playing a key policymaking role in her campaign; former White House adviser Gene Sperling; and Gephardt, who wields an influential role in her thinking.

Democratic economists say the ideological makeup of her team signals an economic policy that is almost identical to that of her husband's: pushing a balanced budget, trade agreements with labor-friendly provisions and soak-the-rich tax hikes.

"Her trade policies would probably be similar to Bush's trade policies, which were similar to Clinton's," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. "My guess is she would say what she had to say to get labor's support, but at the end of the day, it's going to be the same thing. I don't see her changing course on the policies."

And: "She would raise taxes on one or two of the top brackets to where Clinton raised them," pushing the top federal income-tax rate back up to nearly 40 percent, Baker told me.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.