WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in dueling speeches yesterday, outlined their differing visions of the role of government -- and offered a preview of the likely national debate for the 1996 presidential season.
In separate speeches to the National League of Cities meeting here, the two political leaders -- one a self-styled "New Democrat," the other a conservative Republican stalwart -- employed the kind of "sound bite" rhetoric that stands to become a staple during the next year and a half.
But in the process they also continued to fine-tune a philosophical debate that White House press secretary Mike McCurry characterized as a national discussion of how much government is the right amount.
Mr. Clinton, in his address, agreed that it was important to control federal spending, and he cited various trims his administration had already made in the size of the federal bureaucracy.
But he saved his passion for the spending increases that he has championed, thumping the lectern as he went through the list: expanding the Head Start preschool program, earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars for summer jobs for inner-city youths, increasing the college loan program and making available free childhood immunization shots.
"What is the purpose of the government?," Mr. Clinton asked. "It's to empower people to make the most of their lives, to enhance their security and to help create opportunity as a partner."
Mr. Gingrich, in his speech, insisted that it was precisely that kind of thinking -- that Washington has the answers -- that has led to such problems as skyrocketing out-of-wedlock births, failing public schools and unsafe housing projects.
"We need local folks to solve local problems," said the Georgia lawmaker, who assumed the speakership in January after the GOP's sweeping congressional victories in November.
Mr. Gingrich proposed to the municipal leaders that the federal government relieve the states and cities of the burden of complying with Washington's mandates and allow them to handle the money earmarked for poverty and other social problems.
Such action is desirable, Mr. Gingrich asserted, for two reasons. First, anti-poverty solutions that emanate from Washington tend to make problems worse, not better. Second, Washington's habit of deficit spending is bankrupting the nation's future.
"This is the most important debate in modern political history," he said. "We won the Cold War. Are we prepared to balance the budget?"
Mr. Gingrich said morality dictates strong action against the growing federal debt. "We have a moral obligation to our children and grandchildren," he said in urging support for Republican efforts to slash away at annual federal deficits.
Mr. Clinton, who spoke after Mr. Gingrich, insisted that he was willing to entertain ideas for cuts, saying he hoped the Senate would give him the line-item veto, by which he could eliminate certain spending provisions in a bill he otherwise might favor.
Such authority, he said, would allow him to "cut pork without hurting people."
But the president didn't offer any examples of the kind of further cuts he has in mind. Instead, he lashed out at GOP proposals.
"I don't believe in the proposed cut to housing assistance that helps 63,000 families -- women with small children, low-income senior citizens," Mr. Clinton said. He added, "I think it's smarter to streamline programs and cut bureaucrats than to put families on the street or to leave you to deal with the problem."
Mr. Gingrich, speaking to reporters after his speech, complained that the White House was spreading "disinformation" about Republican plans -- and failing to offering any counterproposals on how to trim the $200 billion annual deficit.
"He seems to think he's the defensive back for some football team and his job is to counterpunch whatever we're doing," said Mr. Gingrich.
"It would be nice to see the president lead," he added. "But the White House seems to have this campaign-of-the-week mentality, as though this is going to be the longest running presidential re-election in history."