Round Up the Ponies, Fellow Partisans

January 13, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Maybe I'm feeling too mellow this morning, although not quite mellow enough to invite Mrs. Gingrich to tea. But from my post outside the infamous Beltway, the first sight of partisans spoiling for another fight is surprisingly unwelcome.

We're not even two weeks into the new -- that's new, not Newt and puhleeze trash that headline! -- Congress. We've already had the ethics flap: the $4.5 million dollar book advance. We've already had the appointment disaster: the hiring and firing of historian Christina Jeffrey. We've even anointed the new media villain: Connie Chung.

The Republicans are now behaving like insiders, the Democrats are behaving like outsiders. The majority is barreling down the policy highway -- if this is Tuesday, it's time to amend the Constitution -- and the minority is readying a counterattack.

In theory I should be pleased if things don't go smoothly. I am after all a registered non-fan of the Gingrich crowd. The only contract I would recommend anyone signing with Newt is a prenuptial one. Among the few joys of being a minority is that you get to bite the ankles of the party running over you.

But I can't help noticing how easy it is for opponents to forget or deny what they agree on. How easy it is to try and land a blow so the other guy won't look like the winner.

Two years ago when the Democrats won the White House, the Republicans were outraged that President Clinton had won on ''their'' issues, most notably crime, welfare reform and values. They went on a search-and-destroy mission.

Now the Republicans have won the Congress and the Democrats are appalled that Mr. Gingrich's folk have stolen ''their'' issues: change, the middle class, welfare reform and, yes, values.

We're either going to get a scorched-earth policy out of Washington or find some common ground. So in this mellow moment, I am reminded of the optimist who was given a room full of horse manure for Christmas and said excitedly, ''Wow, there must be a pony in there somewhere.''

Somewhere in the morass of political fights and policy wrangles, there are points that most of us in the non-partisan, bipartisan middle actually agree on -- especially in the worry about kids, welfare and unwed mothers. Before we're blinded by partisanship, we should keep an eye out for the ponies.

Pony 1: Kids. OK, Mr. Gingrich bounced off the wall in fantasizing about orphanages for non-orphans, for the kids of the teens he'd cut off the welfare rolls. You shouldn't lose your baby because you're poor.

What do we agree on here? That some families are irreparably broken down. That the kids should come first. That some young mothers living alone with their babies aren't happily independent; they're abandoned. That group living -- call it a kibbutz, call it an extended family or a boarding school or whatever -- for parents and their kids is worth encouraging.

Pony 2: Welfare Reform. A tough Clinton plan balanced a two-year welfare deadline with the promise of training, day care, jobs. Now the Republicans want to show they're even tougher. They want to cut the funds, give the program over to the states, and wipe their hands of it all.

What do we agree on? That promising a teen-ager money -- a pittance but more than she's ever had -- for having a baby isn't a great idea. That leaving her and the baby broke isn't either.

The common wisdom favors work over welfare, and common decency rejects the idea of starving poor kids. We agree on the fix we're in if not how to fix it.

Pony 3: Unwed teen-age mothers. Just because it's the Republicans, backed by a strong right-wing choir, chanting about the evils of unweddedness, doesn't mean that the Democrats should lose their voice again. Remember rolling your eyes at the glorification of unwed pregnant movie stars, groaning at the words of pregnant girls who can't plan for the weekend let alone for their children's future?

What do we agree on? Well, one side says abstinence. The other side says birth control. Most of us want, ''Both, either, anything, something!''

Pony 4: Values. Here we go again. A core of Republicans is saying that poverty is a matter of morals or to be more precise, the lack of them. A core of Democrats is saying that poverty is a matter of jobs, or the lack of them.

What do we agree on? That jobs make an enormous difference. That individual grit, gumption, will power do too. It's a matter of internal resources and international forces.

Somewhere in here there's gotta be a whole herd of such ponies.

In the months ahead, there will be a lot of honest disagreement about policy. There'll be an enormous temptation to do unto others as was done unto you: attack. And there'll be a lot of, um, pony waste.

What else do we agree on?

Pony 5: The good ideas don't belong to one side or another. The real winners are going to be the ones who ride the common ground.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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