To those who follow the welfare reform debate, President Clinton's impassioned defense of the nation's responsibility to its children in his Baltimore speech Tuesday had a bittersweet ring. Here is a president who, as a former governor with a long interest in this issue, knows more than any previous occupant of the White House about the crucial links between the ability of poor children to succeed in life and government programs that aid needy families. Yet, halfway through his term, he has become almost irrelevant as Congress speeds toward changes that could represent drastic and even draconian changes in the federal safety net for children and families.
"You could not design a welfare reform program that would be too tough on work for me," he told a meeting sponsored by the National Governors Association. Likewise, Mr. Clinton said, he is all for giving more flexibility to the states -- as evidenced in the fact that his administration has granted waivers from federal regulations to 29 states that want to experiment with welfare reform.
To date, those waivers represent his legacy on this issue, and even the successes or failures of these experiments may be forgotten in the wake of sweeping changes now being championed by Republicans in the House and Senate. The president warned that the new approach, which would send states a fixed amount of money each year rather than channeling funding for as many families as need it, could engender a "race to the bottom" as hard-pressed states try to reduce their costs.
That may sound like an excessively gloomy scenario but, as Mr. Clinton reminded his audience, when it comes to fighting over money, children are no match for the nursing home lobby, or for the education lobby, or for prisons -- all of which will be scrambling for a share of scarce state resources.
The president made a compelling case that the needs of young families should be a prime consideration in any approach to welfare reform -- and that the proposals now pending in Congress don't pass that test. Those who agree with him can be forgiven for wondering again how and why he lost the momentum on an issue he clearly cares so much about.