Clinton's Smooth Moves On Medicare And Child Care

For a lame duck, President Clinton is flying high these days. By kicking off the new year with proposals to expand Medicare and provide child-care tax breaks, he has congressional Republicans on the defensive once again. GOP lawmakers may sneer at Clinton's policy prescriptions as social engineering, but they envy his masterful timing. "It is very good politics," concedes Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).

Clinton's strategy is twofold. The White House is looking for low-cost initiatives that appeal to stressed-out middle-class voters. But the Medicare plan, announced on Jan. 6, and the day-care initiative, disclosed the next day, are also part of the Democratic game plan for November's elections.

With Clinton at the helm, the party is targeting two swing voting blocs--graying men approaching retirement and working mothers with young children. Frets a GOP strategist: "The President has successfully placed these issues on the '98 agenda." And while Clinton is nearing political retirement himself, he wants to lend a hand to Hill Democrats this fall and his designated successor, Vice-President Al Gore, in 2000.

RETIREE CARROT. Clinton's first demographic target: GOP-leaning males born from the start of the Depression to the end of World War II. Now in their 50s and 60s, they helped the GOP seize control of Congress in 1994. Clinton's Medicare-expansion plan would let 62-year-old early retirees and displaced workers as young as 55 buy coverage at fixed monthly rates ranging from $300 to $400. The plan would also protect early retirees left without medical care because their companies have reneged on promises to provide health insurance. While Republicans enjoy a big edge among all male voters, those close to their golden years tend to be more receptive to Democratic promises of a federal social safety net.

The President's second target and the intended beneficiaries of a $20 billion child-care package are "day-care moms." They are a fast-growing group of young women with kids under age 3. Less affluent than the "soccer moms" who dominated the political scene in 1996, these mothers are in need of affordable, quality child care.

"CRITICAL." The GOP is also hot to target working mothers. Why? About 75% of U.S. families have one, and pollsters say these families are disproportionately represented in booming states such as Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona--where many have flocked to seek new opportunities. Most day-care moms voted for Clinton last year, but a majority of young white mothers have favored GOP House candidates. Child care "is absolutely critical" to Democrats in '98, says Colorado Governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Roy Romer.

Clinton's solution: bigger tax credits for child care, tax incentives to encourage businesses to pay for workers' day care, and expanded block grants for state child-care programs. Scrambling to respond, a GOP task force led by Representatives Jennifer B. Dunn (R-Wash.) and Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) is looking for nongovernment solutions. Many of the ideas under consideration are vaguely Clintonian: new tax breaks for employers to create on-site day care, a more generous tax credit for dependent care, and a bigger personal income-tax exemption for parents.

But Republican strategists say the party has to do more than throw tax money at moms or grayhairs to compete with the I-feel-your-pain President. With voters stressed out coping with work, family, and retirement, "just offering tax cuts sounds very harsh," says Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. Clinton figured that out long ago. And that's why this lame duck is still flapping in the GOP's face.

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