The argument: welfare queens vs. starving kids


IN HIS STATE of the Union address, President Clinton said Americans want a government that is "lean but not mean." As Congress gets down to the dirty work of actually cutting the federal budget, that phrase outlines the challenges facing each party in the months ahead.

Democrats have to prove that they can run a lean government, that they can deliver value for taxpayers' dollars. Republicans have to prove that they are not mean, that they can cut spending without damaging the needy and vulnerable. It won't be easy.

Political strategists in both parties agree: Republicans enjoy a clear advantage when budget choices are posed in the abstract. In the latest ABC News poll, 2 out of 3 respondents favor a balanced budget amendment. But the public shifts dramatically when the issue is specific cuts, not general philosophy. Three out of five oppose a budget amendment if it means cutting Social Security or raising taxes. USA Today reports even more striking results: 69 percent would rather preserve the school lunch program than reduce the deficit, 78 percent would protect Medicare from significant cuts.

Hungry for good news, Democrats are racing to capitalize on this public ambivalence. As the debate heats up, Mr. Clinton will spend more time in school cafeterias than in McDonald's. In Ronald Reagan's world, the typical recipient of government benefits was a "welfare queen" buying beer with food stamps. Mr. Clinton and the Democrats are trying to change that image to a starving child deprived of a healthy lunch. And GOP consultant Glen Bolger admits, "we are losing the spin war."

Now that they command the majority in Congress, Republicans are finding it's a lot harder to drive the car than criticize from the back seat. And the battle over budget symbolism is only one of many axle-rattling potholes looming in front of the GOP caravan. Some of the other pitfalls:

Abortion. Both sides are spoiling for a fight. Pro-life forces are determined to impose a litmus test on GOP nominees, but party leaders see such rigidity as suicidal. This is only one of many areas where colliding political ambitions could threaten unity. One Republican presidential aspirant -- Sen. Phil Gramm -- vows to filibuster against Dr. Henry Foster's nomination as surgeon general while another -- Sen. Arlen Specter -- claims Dr. Foster is being railroaded. Meanwhile GOP moderates successfully blocked an amendment that would have allowed states to bar Medicaid abortions even in cases of rape or incest. To Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., that measure smacked of intolerance: "I think we're going to send out the wrong message to the American people."

Hatfield. While zealous newcomers failed to discipline Sen. Mark Hatfield for opposing the balanced budget amendment, the fight revealed simmering GOP rivalries between old and young, House and Senate, moderates and conservatives. As Mr. Hatfield notes, the GOP "has moved rightward" in recent years, raising demands from a new generation of lawmakers for greater discipline. "They feel," he lamented, "that perhaps diversity in our party is a weakness and not a strength."

Gingrich. House Democrats are determined to push ethics complaints against Speaker Newt Gingrich, and at some point he could become a political liability for the GOP. We've seldom seen such personal bitterness toward an individual lawmaker, but as one Democratic insider explained: "He's caused a lot of NTC pain and suffering and heartbreak for people."

Taxes. While House Republicans are pushing a large package of tax reductions, GOP senators place top priority on deficit reduction.

But the political problem is even stickier. Republicans have shrewdly shed their Big Business label, and for many average Americans, the enemy of prosperity is now Washington not Wall Street, the bureaucrats not the bosses. But Democrats think, or hope, that GOP tax proposals could revive the old charge that Republicans favor the wealthy over the workers.

Term limits. Like abortion, this is an area where full-gospel interest groups take a much purer view than lawmakers trying to account for political reality, and the fratricide will only get worse.

Governors. GOP governors are pressing for more flexibility on issues like welfare. But conservatives on Capitol Hill are eager to put their own imprint on social programs. And they want to make sure that when Democrats regain power on the state level they won't be able to revive old social programs.

The Republicans still have plenty of momentum, and public support, behind them. But the next 30 days will be much tougher than the past 70. A lot will depend on the struggle over symbols. Does government serve queens, or kids?

Cokie Roberts is a commentator for ABC News. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

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