Whispering In Bill's Right Ear

The widening influence of New Democrat Bruce Reed

The defining moment in Bruce N. Reed's career came last July, when he made the case for welfare reform at a White House showdown in front of President Clinton. Eschewing the argument that the issue was good election-year politics, the New Democrat intellectual calmly discussed the failures of the welfare system. Administration liberals begged Clinton not to abandon the poor. "It was a riveting debate," recalls Reed. "When it was over, nobody could tell which way the decision would go." But not for long. Clinton decided to sign the Republican-written welfare bill, prompting two liberal advisers to resign. And policy wonk Reed, 37, won a post-election promotion: chief domestic adviser to the President.

These days, this soft-spoken son of a former Idaho state senator is moving to enact the centrist promises of Clinton's 1996 campaign. They include initiatives to help former welfare recipients find jobs, an emphasis on parental responsibilities in child-rearing, a renewed offensive against juvenile crime and drugs, and more stringent antiterrorism measures.

The job is a dream come true for the former Rhodes Scholar. But it's also tough, since the boss always butts in. Reed puts it diplomatically: "The President has always been his own best domestic policy adviser." Still, Clinton listens.

The two go back nearly a decade--to when Clinton chaired the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and Reed edited its magazine, The New Democrat. "We have a wonk-to-wonk relationship," the Princeton University English major chuckles. He played a key role in shaping Clinton's 1992 campaign manifesto, Putting People First. Reed also has close ties to Vice-President Al Gore, serving as chief speechwriter when Gore was in the Senate.

Those connections make Reed a powerful player inside the White House. But they haven't shielded him from political snipers on the Left and the Right. Mindful of the '96 welfare battle, many liberal Democrats view Reed as a traitor. With the departure of liberal stalwarts--Harold M. Ickes, George R. Stephanopoulos, and Leon E. Panetta--from Clinton's circle of advisers, the progressives fear the Administration will turn its back on traditional constituencies to attract business, suburban professionals, and GOP moderates. "The President chose Reed because he has chosen to accede to Republican priorities," gripes Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.

And although Reed shares the GOP's fondness for family values, Republicans aren't reveling in his ascendancy. Conservatives complain that Clinton's balanced-budget blueprint creates expensive new domestic programs such as mandated health benefits for children. "Their budget is fundamentally left-wing," grumbles Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative think tank. "It would make Ickes and Stephanopoulos proud."

DEEP THINKERS. The attention Reed is getting these days is evidence that Clinton is giving the Domestic Policy Council a larger role than in his first term, when Carol H. Rasco was DPC chair. An obscure Arkansas welfare official with close ties to the Clintons, Rasco seemed to make many policy decisions on an ad hoc basis. The result: Clinton drew fire for appearing to vacillate and looking unprincipled--until political adviser Dick Morris persuaded the President to stick to the center by co-opting GOP issues.

Acting on Clinton's order to beef up domestic policy, Reed has assembled a staff dominated by deep thinkers rather than political vets. To ensure follow-through on Administration initiatives, Reed created teams assigned to education, welfare, health, and crime. White House colleagues are impressed. "Bruce has invigorated domestic policy," crows senior Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel.

Trumpeting family values is no mere political exercise. Married since 1983 to his high school sweetheart, a former Justice Dept. lawyer who is now a full-time homemaker, Reed is the father of two young children. He readily boasts that his 3-year-old daughter, Julia, "learned to walk in the Oval Office."

Despite that doting-dad demeanor, Reed is a fierce competitor. Indeed, the former captain of Oxford University's ice-hockey team acknowledges that "politics is a contact sport." And Reed must quickly summon up his hockey skills for the coming political face-off over the fiscal 1998 budget. Why the rush? Much of the domestic policy blueprint for the second term will be rolled into that document, which is likely to form the basis for a five-year balanced-budget deal with Hill Republicans. Among the top priorities tied up in budget talks: tax breaks for college education and for job training, a restoration of certain welfare benefits for legal aliens, and additional transportation assistance to help inner-city residents travel to suburban jobs.

"BULLY PULPIT." Getting Republicans to cut a deal, however, may be tough. As the Donorgate campaign-finance scandal festers, Hill Republicans have hardened their resistance to new Clinton initiatives. Indeed, GOP leaders--perceiving Clinton's weakness--have delayed the start of serious budget talks.

With congressional action uncertain, Reed is pushing ideas that don't require legislation--but that use the President's "bully pulpit" to spur state governments and the private sector into action. One example: Clinton's emphasis on improving American education standards, including a request that all schools adopt standardized tests in math and English for fourth and eighth graders by 1999. The President is also urging businesses to hire former welfare recipients.

But as Reed woos the private sector, he'll have to watch his left flank. Some Hill Democrats believe they can persuade Clinton to ignore his policy wonk. Representative Cynthia A. McKinney (D-Ga.), a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, figures the President's rightward drift is temporary--and can be reversed by Democratic threats to withhold votes for Clinton initiatives. "I can't believe that the shift to the right represents anything more than political opportunism," says McKinney. "The countervailing pressures that can be put on the White House by people like me can make sure that shift is only momentary."

That's not likely. Still, Reed is doing his best to avoid further alienation of the left. With a major revision of welfare reforms doubtful, the White House is pushing "welfare-to-work" initiatives to find jobs for ex-recipients. But such attempts to reach out to Democratic constituencies are not a sign of ideological softness. As friend and foe have learned in the past, this intellectual speaks softly and--even when he's not on the ice--skillfully wields a big stick.

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