Clinton's Friends Whet Their Knives

TONY PROSCIO

December 24, 1992|By TONY PROSCIO

MIAMI — Miami. -- Theresa Funiciello, firebrand agitator for the rights o welfare recipients, once howled in the face of a New York welfare commissioner: ''Don't talk to me about clients' obligations! Read the law, mister! Welfare is an entitlement. The obligations are yours!''

The year, I think, was 1982, barely 18 months into the first Reagan term and hardly the best time for welfare-rights types. Yet the commissioner, a burnt-out public servant acquainted with grief, merely shook his head.

As a legal matter, she was right. Entitlement wasn't just the law; it was the prevailing principle of a (slowly dying) political era.

The balance between obligations and entitlements in social welfare programs has been shifting ever since.

Here and there, state and federal laws have piled on work requirements, time limits and penalties for anti-social behavior, such as failure to show up for job interviews or children who frequently skip school.

But most states still consider welfare an unqualified entitlement for at least one class of recipient: infants and (necessarily) their mothers. Most states are reluctant to withdraw support even from the most uncooperative recipients when the result might endanger the children.

Yet by invoking a ''new covenant'' in his campaign, Bill Clinton has raised the notion of shared obligation to the level of a governing principle.

Is he now prepared to cross the final frontier and tighten obligations on mothers with young children?

And if he harbors such ideas, will liberals in his party acquiesce or smear him with accusations of racism, as they have done to others with similar ideas?

Welfare is not the only target at which Mr. Clinton has aimed the arrow of shared obligation.

His college aid plan, for example, would offer student loans to almost anyone, but it then would require some form of national service from all those who are unable or unwilling to repay the loans promptly.

Some public-employee unions fear that ''national service'' would mean giving union jobs away, at lower wages, to newly credentialed yuppies. And when unions are unhappy, plenty of Democrats dive for cover.

In reforming welfare, Mr. Clinton has said, for example, that he would cut off federal support if recipients don't take a job within two years.

Is he prepared to pay for day care for their children while they're in training or at work?

Or to put recipients in public-service jobs if they don't find work on their own? Neither day care nor jobs come cheap. Both are political dynamite.

Only one prominent Democrat, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, has dared to embrace welfare reform as a personal cause. A Moynihan protege, Paul Offner, is frequently mentioned as a possible welfare chief under the next secretary of health and human services. If he gets the job, that would be a good sign that Mr. Clinton means to try something ambitious.

But among organized labor and the Democrats' more liberal wing, there's already a price on Mr. Offner's head.

With friends like that, Mr. Clinton might be better off looking across the partisan aisle for support.

Some GOP staffers see a historic chance for the new president to prove on this issue that he's more concerned with principle than party. They draw parallels to Richard Nixon's voyage to China. Mr. Clinton, they say, could lead his party and the nation where an ideological conservative never could.

''We want him to know that we're with him on this,'' a Capitol Hill Republican told me, ''and we're reasonable people. If they want to talk, we're ready.''

It would be dangerous, though, for an incoming Democratic president to irritate his party's base, as that kind of strategy might.

Jimmy Carter's feud with liberals and organized labor helped hustle him out of the White House. Mr. Clinton has studied that experience, and he has no intention of repeating it.

Last month Senator Moynihan wrote that welfare reform -- in fact, the whole regimen of shared obligation -- ''could be the most important domestic initiative of the Clinton administration.'' That's no exaggeration. But it could also be the most dangerous.

Somewhere, I imagine, Theresa Funiciello and a militant army of entitlementarians are out there, waiting.

And their long knives even now are being laid to the whetting stones. Bill Clinton seems to have a clear vision of the path that lies ahead of him. But he'd better be watching his back.

Tony Proscio is associate editor of the Miami Herald.

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