McGovern advises Clinton to adopt a liberal agenda



WASHINGTON -- As House Speaker Newt Gingrich continues to plot the burial of American liberalism, the man whose name personifies it, 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, is looking to President Clinton -- or, if necessary, past him -- to achieve its resurrection as an effective force.

McGovern says the president needs to stand and make a fight for a few traditional liberal positions to put his presidency back on track. He should resume the effort for health care reform on a more modest basis, McGovern says, and cut defense spending now that the Cold War is over, investing the savings in job training.

If Clinton instead bows to the "New Democrat" entreaties of the ** Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and cozies up to the Republican Party, McGovern says, he may well face a liberal challenge for the 1996 Democratic nomination.

The former South Dakota senator, who offered himself as the voice of liberalism in the race for the 1984 nomination, says he has no intention of performing that role again. But, he says, "a challenge [from somebody else] might not necessarily hurt Clinton if it moved him in a more forceful direction. What would hurt him is if somebody challenged him as a third-party candidate and hung in."

Any Democratic challenger, he says, should declare that if Clinton is nominated, he will support him. McGovern acknowledges, however, that he doesn't see any Democrat likely to fill that role other than Jesse Jackson, who has indicated he might do so.

Short of a candidacy of his own, McGovern says, he will write and speak out for liberal policies while supporting Clinton and hoping to encourage him to move in that direction. He also muses about the possibility of creating a new liberal group within the Democratic Party as a counter to the moderate-to-conservative DLC.

At the same time, he says, Democratic liberalism needs more young voices to join his own and that of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who has similarly called on Clinton to fight for traditional Democratic positions. One reason there seems to be a lack of such voices is the fact that young Americans from 1968 to 1992 grew up through a period of dominant Republican conservatism, with only the break of four years under moderate Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Specifically, McGovern wants Clinton to revive last year's push for health care reform, this time with a more modest and more easily under standable approach. He suggests that Clinton as a first step propose simply extending the government-paid Medicare program to children under age 6.

"The most important health care is for kids, not for guys like me," says the 72-year-old former South Dakota senator. "If it works well, maybe you could then include those up to age 18 two or three years down the road, and gradually as the budget will permit, move to cover the whole population. It's not as big a shock to the medical system in stages like this."

McGovern is well aware of the opposition of the insurance industry to any "single-payer" approach in which the government would replace private insurers. But he notes that the industry fought Clinton even as he proposed letting them control the reforms he sought last year.

As for cost, McGovern says single-payer would be the cheapest approach, and by making children the initial beneficiaries Democrats could embrace it without committing political suicide. I were running for Congress in any state against someone who said we can afford it for us old codgers but not for kids," he says, "I could win."

The other major stand McGovern says Clinton should make is against increases in defense spending. "He's got to come to terms with the Cold War military budget," he says. At a time when the Cold War military threat has faded, he notes, the United States is spending four times more on defense than China and the old Soviet states combined.

Savings on military spending could finance not only his own limited health care proposal, McGovern says, but also investment for job training, which the Republicans in Congress stymied in 1993. He says he supports a similar job education agenda offered last week by Kennedy.

McGovern clearly is a reluctant critic. Clinton worked in his 1972 campaign, and they have a good relationship. He wants Clinton to succeed, but is convinced that eschewing liberal policies won't do it.

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