Good policy, politics that's welfare reform



WASHINGTON -- In his 1992 campaign for the presidency, candidate Bill Clinton took two significant steps to achieve a critical breakthrough with white working-class voters -- the so-called Reagan Democrats, meaning those nominal Democrats who had voted twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George Bush for president.

The first Clinton move was the decision to deliberately affront Jesse Jackson in the controversy over rap singer Sister Souljah and thus distinguish himself from his two immediate predecessors as the Democratic nominee for president, Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis. Both had been perceived -- inaccurately but widely -- as having caved in to Jackson to win his support.

The second was the emphasis Clinton placed all through the campaign on the welfare reform issue. From the day he announced his candidacy in Little Rock in the late summer of 1991, Clinton preached "responsibility" in the welfare system and promised to move welfare beneficiaries off the rolls and into jobs. The welfare system, said Clinton, should be a second chance, not a way of life. He would end welfare as we know it, he added repeatedly.

The welfare issue was used tactically in ways that suggested its political complexity. Late in the campaign, for example, the Clinton strategists used television commercials on welfare reform to appeal to conservative Southern whites but didn't run them in such cities as Philadelphia and Chicago, where blacks might have drawn different inferences. The candidate's own use of the issue in speeches was similarly selective.

Now that he is ready to press ahead on welfare reform from the Oval Office, however, there is no further reason for such dancing around. Welfare reform can be both sound policy and good politics -- the kind of issue that places the president squarely in the middle with the great majority of the electorate.

There are, of course, some dissenters. There are some 19th century conservatives, mostly but not entirely Republican, who want to simply shut down the system, apparently holding to the quaint view that if anyone really wants to work, he or she can always find a job. And if they don't, then the folks at church will help out or Aunt Sarah next door will bring some hot soup.

On the other hand, there are liberals, mostly but not entirely blacks,

who suspect any reform of the welfare system may be nothing but a plot to appeal to those blue-collar whites and deny sustenance to young mothers and their children.

In fact, the president's plan is both modest and centrist. It would not end welfare as we know it but it would make a serious beginning by focusing on young people in the system who still have the potential to be weaned off it. Recognizing that it would be political suicide to propose any tax increase, Clinton settled on a plan that would cost only $9.3 billion over five years to cover the costs of job training, child care and public service jobs for those who cannot find work in the private sector after two years.

Outlining his plan, the president said it would take a million people off the welfare rolls by the year 2000. That estimate is considered optimistic by some experts, but the point is that the cycle would be broken and direction reversed. If Clinton can accomplish that goal, he will deserve and get high marks politically from taxpayers convinced that they are being taken over the jumps now and forced to pay for the sloth of others.

It won't happen this year. Although Clinton has promised specific legislation in a few days, the White House has made a strategic decision not to press for welfare reform this year lest the issue become a complication in finding a solution to health care reform. Moreover, Clinton can argue with some justification that a new health care system must be put in place before welfare can be changed significantly.

The result of this timetable could be politically fortuitous for Clinton.

There will be some hand-wringing from both liberals and conservatives in Congress, where nothing substantial is ever achieved easily. But the issue that played such an important part in putting Bill Clinton in the White House could be extremely valuable to him in trying to stay there in 1996.

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