Tough and Tougher


Boston. -- All right, I will admit to a certain amount of pleasure in seeing the Contract negotiations break down. There was something smug about the claims of the Newt kids on the block that they would wing through all the social problems of our era in a hundred days -- soaring across great cultural divides into blissful new territories.

In the middle of the flight pattern, some of the passengers started to have second thoughts about the crew. One morning, Americans looked up at each other over the breakfast table saying, "Hon, do you remember voting against the school-lunch program?" "No, sweetie, was it on the ballot?"

School lunch, food stamps, block grants, big cuts. By the time welfare reform got to the House floor, the nice, safe, voter demand to "do something about welfare" had turned into anxiety about what actually was being done. The country began wondering if the Republicans even knew what they were doing.

Maybe the folks who wrote the "Contract with America" hadn't exactly figured out how the government could reduce the number of children born out of wedlock while also reducing abortions. Or how to come down hard on poor mothers while lifting their kids up. Or how to get more mothers to work without paying a whole lot more for child care. And by the way, what about health insurance?

Finally it seemed that Democrats had found their voice -- a yell -- with Rep. Sam Gibbons claiming the right "to be as petulant as I want to be." Republicans were fighting with each other over abortion and fighting with Democrats over their reputation. Things got so bad for the Republicans last Wednesday that they sent their gentler and kinder female House members out to talk to the media as mothers and teachers, with Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio asking, "Now, do we look like ogres?"

You could hear the breakfast talk Thursday morning: "Hon, do you remember voting for an ogre?" "No, sweetie, was there one on the ballot?"

Despite my good cheer at this comeuppance, I have a little trouble remaining uplifted by a debate about which plan is vTC cruelest. We're witnessing a shouting contest between those who say the current welfare system is what's really mean to kids and those who say the Republican overhaul is what's truly mean.

Well, really, truly, and without being petulant, I think there's more agreement in the public than in Congress. Two years ago, the reformers in the Clinton administration thought that a deal had been brokered between liberals and conservatives.

Liberals were finally admitting that welfare should be temporary and welfare mothers directed toward work. Conservatives were finally admitting that it would take money to make the transition.

The Clinton plan was tough. It placed a time limit of two years for most families on welfare. It proposed to cap payments so that there wouldn't be more money for a child born while the mother was on welfare. But in return, it promised a serious increase in child care and in training and jobs. Instead of a handout, as they said over and over again, a hand-up.

There was a lot of grumbling among liberal Democrats who called this a Republican plan. The conservative Republicans thought Mr. Clinton was doing their act.

But then the far right decided to out-tough the administration. The current Republican plan not only cuts off cash payments to mothers under 18, but rolls welfare into a block grant of social programs, cuts the funds, drops the whole thing on the states' doorsteps and walks away.

The idea of reforming welfare has become a plan to slash it. The goal of changing lives has become a plan to save money. And the public is getting belatedly uneasy about whacking away at the poorest and youngest. Instead of a hand-up, the back of a hand.

"The tragedy is that there really is this great middle ground on the issue of welfare reform," says David Ellwood, the co-author of the Clinton plan who is now watching from the sidelines with dismay. But partisan politics abhors the middle ground the way nature abhors a vacuum.

So now the Republicans are in a contest with the Democrats to determine who's the cruelest of them all. The good news is both sides are worrying about appearing too mean to the poor, instead of worrying about appearing tough enough. The bad news is we're back in the blame game.

"Hon, do you remember voting for the blame game?" "Sweetie, maybe that'll be on the ballot next time."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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