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Is This What We Want?


Less than a week to go. In some polls, George Bush is up a point or two. In most polls, Bill Clinton is far ahead. All the polls agree on one subjective finding: The Clinton vote is not set in concrete. It still wobbles.

If that is the case, and I believe it is, these final days are critical. Over the past nine months, in a torrent of position papers, platform declarations, three debates and a thousand speeches, Governor Clinton has provided a picture of what he will ask of Congress. What we have seen, he has said, is what we will get. Do the people want it?

The differences between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush are largely differences of degree, not of kind, but these differences are sharply defined. The Arkansas governor is not a flaming liberal. He is not an ideological bomb thrower. The gentleman is a pragmatist, a moderate, a man much given to compromise. I venture these observations in no pejorative sense. President Bush has no political philosophy either.

Under a Clinton administration, we may expect to see a broad policy develop in which the role of government is expanded and the role of the private sector is diminished. This is the first and greatest area of difference between the two candidates. Mr. Clinton is a government man. Mr. Bush is a marketplace man.

We see this clearly in their contrasting views on the matter of health care. Mr. Clinton is not advocating "socialized medicine," but he is advocating all kinds of laws, rules, regulations and cost controls. Virtually all the people would get some form of health and hospitalization insurance. They would get it at a high price. Areas of personal choice would shrink. A prodigious bureaucracy would grow. If this is what we want, this is what we will get.

The governor's budgetary plans, like so many of his plans, are not crystal clear, but they are generally clear. He will ask Congress for a sharp increase in income taxes paid by those with incomes above a certain point. He mentions $200,000, but his own aides tell him that the cutoff point will have to be much lower if he is to get the revenue he wants.

The effect of such a tax policy will be to transfer large sums from our personal pocketbooks to the government's pocketbooks. More would be available for government to spend on roads, dams, bridges, subways, public housing and other public works. Many temporary jobs would be created. The flip side is that private investment would inevitably be diminished -- and it is the private sector, especially the small-business sector, that creates the jobs that matter most.

On certain specific issues, the candidates are far apart.

President Bush repeatedly has vetoed a family-leave bill. The measure would impose one more burden upon employers. It would mandate one more fringe benefit for employees. The bill would nibble at areas of freedom and enlarge areas of control. If this is what we want, Governor Clinton has assured us that this is what we will get.

In another area of the marketplace, the governor would tilt the bargaining table to union labor. He would sign a bill to prohibit employers from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. This would upset a policy that has prevailed for more than 50 years, by which a worker's right to strike is balanced by a risk of losing his job. Mr. Clinton would sign the bill.

Under present law, employees of the government are restricted by the Hatch Act in their partisan political activities. The system denies government workers some of the civil liberties enjoyed by others, but it protects the workers from political manipulation. Mr. Clinton would relax these old rules of civil service.

The governor favors federal legislation to pre-empt state laws on voter registration. He favors statehood for the District of Columbia. He will ask Congress greatly to enlarge the role of the federal government in public education -- a policy that carries with it the prospect of greater federal control.

Would the incoming Congress deliver on these promises? It might deliver more than Mr. Clinton requests. In Washington, the governor would be the new kid on the block. Such playground bullies as Senators Metzenbaum, Kennedy and Biden could be counted on to swipe his school lunch and run off with all his marbles. These guys are not moderates at all. The worrisome thought is that what they want is what we are likely to get.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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