The formation of a new politics

Donald Kimelman

November 05, 1991|By Donald Kimelman

POLITICS GETTING you down? Same old faces, same tired arguments. Can't lick that sinking feeling that nothing they come up with in Washington (or the statehouse or city hall) will make the streets safer, the schools better, the economy stronger?

Well, cheer up. You're not alone. And help may be on the way.

There is a growing awareness among political thinkers that the ++ ideological debate that dominated the last decade -- and paralyzed the federal government in the process -- has just about played out. Neither the left nor the right had the answers, although each side was pretty good at exposing the other's flaws.

Now a new politics is forming -- one that borrows from both sides but is not locked into any fixed world view. Its proponents tend to be young or new to the political game, and they come from both parties.

"The old labels have to go because they are not working," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a freshman legislator, said last week at a conference in Washington exploring this new political thinking. "It's time to drop ideology in favor of rationality."

The conference was co-sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the left-of-center Progressive Foundation and ambitiously titled: "Left and Right: The Emergence of a New Politics in the 1990s?" There was much joking about this uneasy alliance of unlikely bedfellows, but what was striking was how little they had to argue about.

Basically, the liberals are no longer insisting that for every societal problem there is a governmental solution, while the conservatives are ready to acknowledge that government can play a positive role in solving problems. But I have to watch my words here -- one refrain at the conference was that the press has to stop applying old ideological labels to new ideas.

The best example of convergence was in the discussion of family. Everyone agreed that there are no good substitutes for the two-parent family, which former drug czar William J. Bennett refers to as "the first and best Department of Health, Education and Welfare."

Now this may sound obvious to most readers, but it is something of a revelation to folks on the left, who were arguing not long ago that the nuclear family was obsolete and that the welfare state could provide a single parent with all the help she needs.

So where does government come in? It can give families "the support and protection they need to carry out the child-rearing and building of character that they do best," said William Galston, a university professor who was issues director for Walter Mondale's presidential campaign.

That means increasing the tax exemption for dependents and providing actual tax credits for the working poor, Galston said. It means toughening the laws on divorce and child support to discourage families from breaking apart and, when they do, to ensure that the children's needs come first. It means schools teaching children as much about the value of family as they do about safe sex.

As for education itself, there was broad support for the concept of school choice. The debate -- and it never got heated -- was over whether a choice system should be restricted to public schools or whether it should include vouchers to ease the financial burden of attending private or parochial schools.

The common understanding was that bureaucratized, monopolistic school systems have no strong incentives to improve, and that the greatest spur to educational reform will be to create conditions of competition.

Bureaucracy, in general, took its lumps at this gathering. The emphasis was on creative government policies to encourage people and communities to act in their own best interests.

Thus, the strongest theme in the discussion of welfare policies was to rejigger the government rules to reward work and discourage sloth. As things stand now, a woman on welfare who marries a man earning the minimum wage will see her income and benefits drop. That has to change through policies that provide greater assistance to the working poor, while eliminating any incentives for a single woman to have child after child on welfare.

One questioner asked a panel of notables -- all of them white -- how to address touchy social issues without being accused of racism? He was encouraged to just be honest and let folks understand that he has their best interests at heart.

The role model on that score appeared on a later panel. He is Vince Lane, a black developer who is chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority -- a man who, one speaker proudly noted, has been sued by both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association for his efforts to rid the projects of guns, drugs and the people who use them.

In justifying his policies, which also include encouraging tenant management and home ownership, Lane has had no trouble drawing moral distinctions among his impoverished tenants: "We punish the criminals and reward the decent folk. It's as simple as that."

One rather eggheady conference does not a political movement make. But politicians are already testing these themes, and the public is hungering for change.

"It's almost as if our leaders are standing at the edge of the void and wondering how to get across, and the voters are coming behind them to give them a shove," David Osborne, an expert on innovation in state and local government, remarked. His prediction: "The party that first embraces these new assumptions will be the party that dominates the coming era."

Donald Kimelman is deputy editorial page editor at the %o Philadelphia Inquirer.

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