WASHINGTON -- In a bid to occupy the anti-politics high ground in the 1992 campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Bob Kerrey proposed a wholesale shake-up of the federal government yesterday.
His extraordinary proposal, which includes abolishing half the president's Cabinet and laying off nearly one-third of congressional staff members, was a clear attempt to bolster Mr. Kerrey's outsider credentials and help him surf the anti-Washington currents sweeping the country this fall.
"The 1992 presidential election is going to be different than our most recent contests," the Nebraska senator said. "The American people are hurting. They want answers and real solutions, and they want fundamental change.
Using terms reminiscent of other outsider candidates, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, he assailed "government waste" in Washington and said restoring public trust in government is "a moral issue" for politicians.
Like Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan, he is emphasizing his credentials as a former governor as he attacks the federal establishment. But his current job as a U.S. senator makes running against Washington potentially more difficult for Mr. Kerrey, even though he has spent only three years in the nation's capital.
The 48-year-old candidate chose to unveil his plan in a typically Washington manner: a luncheon speech in the ballroom of the National Press Club during which he also criticized Republican economic policy of the last 11 years, saying, "We feel like we have bought a potion promising to make our hair grow which produced baldness instead."
With anti-incumbent sentiment at near-record levels in the polls, all presidential candidates, including President Bush, are scrambling to position themselves as outsiders. But few have been as specific as Mr. Kerrey in proposing changes in the current system.
For example, only one Democratic contender, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., has embraced the movement for term limits on Congress.
Mr. Kerrey "reluctantly" opposes term limits, saying they would not achieve their goal of bringing fresh blood into public office.
Instead, Mr. Kerrey supports other campaign re
forms as a way of reducing the political advantages of incumbency.
But his reorganization proposal could produce even greater changes on Capitol Hill than term limits would. He called yesterday for a 30-percent cut in the size of congressional staffs (there are an estimated 14,000 aides) and the elimination of about 210 of the 280 committees and subcommittees in Congress.
He coupled that with a proposal to restructure the Defense Department and cut military spending by 30 percent to 40 percent over the next decade.
He also offered a plan, similar to one recently proposed by Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif., chairman of the House Budget Committee, to streamline the rest of the executive branch.
"We have a Department of Commerce that creates no commerce. We have a Department of Labor that fails to protect and advise the American workers. We have a Department of Agriculture that has presided over the destruction of the American family farm," Mr. Kerrey said.
Those departments, along with Education, Energy, Interior, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services, would be abolished under the Kerrey plan.
Their functions would be taken over by three new departments: Human Resources, Natural Resources and Economic Policy, a Kerrey aide said.
The last president to attempt such a sweeping reorganization was Mr. Carter, whose post-Watergate reforms went nowhere in Congress. Mr. Carter did succeed in establishing a Department of Education, which Mr. Kerrey excoriated yesterday as "a top-down regulatory nightmare."
His critique was similar to Mr. Reagan's 1980 campaign pledge to abolish the Education Department, an initiative that teachers' unions succeeded in blocking once he took office.