Ever since the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton has been struggling to convince the nation that he's different from the tax-and-spend Democrats of old. Now, the President is picking a fight that may finally allow him to establish his credentials as a New Democrat.
Clinton is determined to deliver on a campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it" in an effort to break "the permanent culture of dependence." That promise helped him win the votes of many erstwhile Reagan Democrats. But tackling welfare will embroil the President in a major fight with party liberals, who still tend to dismiss talk of reform as thinly veiled racism. "This is really going to test his mettle," says Representative E. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.), co-author of a GOP welfare plan.
A task force is due to present welfare-reform recommendations to Clinton by Jan. 1, and it looks as if the centerpiece will be a cutoff of benefits after two years unless a recipient is seeking education or training. And the Clintonites appear to be backing away from a huge program of public jobs for former recipients. In part, that's because they lack the money. But the Administration also believes that the solution to the welfare morass may lie with business, not government. "Reform wants to move people from welfare into jobs, and we much prefer private-sector jobs," says one official.
EXPERIMENTS. To achieve that goal, the Administration will attempt to "build bridges" to business, says one Clintonite. Ideas being mulled include expanding an existing tax credit to give employers a bigger break for hiring former welfare recipients; providing tax inducements for training at the job site; and creating public-private partnerships to make sure that those leaving welfare are trained for real jobs.
The Clintonites also hope to learn from state and local experiments such as New York City's contract with America Works, a company that helps welfare recipients find training, transportation, day care, and jobs. And they're watching a new Virginia program that gives employers a bit of the former benefits of welfare recipients they hire.
Business groups are encouraged, but they are waiting to see more details. "There is a desire on the part of the Administration to make welfare reform real, but they've got a shortage of specifics," comments Lisa M. Sprague of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Not surprisingly, many liberals are apoplectic. "There is a fear that this will simply become nothing more than a windfall for business," says Mark Greenberg, attorney for the Center for Law & Social Policy, an advocacy group. On Nov. 24, 89 House Democratic liberals sent Clinton a tough letter warning him not to punish the poor. "The progressives need to step up and set our limits that we will not move beyond," says Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), the only former welfare mother in Congress.
But the liberals may well be outgunned. In the Senate, the Administration will have a powerful ally in Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a fervent reform advocate for 25 years. Seventy-seven members of the House Democrats' Mainstream Forum have signed a letter urging President Clinton to stick with the two-year limit. And White House thinking is not that far away from a House GOP plan that has attracted 160 co-sponsors.
Liberals aren't admitting defeat. They warn that the fight could cripple Clinton's campaign for health-care reform. But for now, Clinton seems prepared to take on the Democratic left. Given the public disgust with "welfare as we know it," it's a battle the White House is convinced it can't lose.