WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is probably right when he complains that the Republican interest in welfare is being driven as much by ideology and budget-cutting as by concern with reforming the system.
But it shouldn't be forgotten that Clinton also used the issue as a political weapon to great effect during the 1992 presidential election campaign. Indeed, his promise to "end welfare as we know it" was a key element in the image he projected as a "different kind of Democrat" -- meaning not another liberal of the stamp of Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis.
The issue was particularly valuable in several Southern states, where the Clinton campaign ran commercials on welfare reform in trying to bring back to the Democratic fold the conservative whites who had deserted for both Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Clinton broke a pattern in the past three elections by carrying Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky as well as his home state of Arkansas.
It is fair, nonetheless, to say that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton had shown an interest in trying to alter the welfare system so it would no longer be, as he put it, a way of life. And the same can be said today of some Republican governors who have shown a serious concern with the issue, including Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, who is trying to use welfare reform as a prime credential in becoming a contender for the Republican ticket next year.
But there is much more than political gratification involved in the welfare reform the Republicans in Congress are planning and the president seems prepared to swallow. What is at stake is a fundamental change in the way the government deals with those in need.
Welfare became a federal entitlement program essentially because it was the only way the people with the least power in society could be protected with a minimal level of benefits.
Now the Republicans are determined to turn the whole thing back to the states with a block grant lump sum ostensibly designed to cover the costs. As Clinton had proposed during his campaign, the Republican proposals now being considered in the House and Senate would limit how long beneficiaries can be paid and would require them to work -- both crowd-pleasers with middle-class taxpayers. And all this can be accomplished, the Republicans as sure us, while saving substantial amounts of money.
That, of course, is nonsense. Everyone who knows anything about the welfare system agrees that any true reform will involve some temporarily increased costs for job training and day care for young mothers. There simply are not enough jobs available for unskilled young people unless the government, at one level or another, creates public jobs, which is no way to save money.
So the question is, what happens when these state governments, however noble their intentions, discover they cannot afford the training and day care to make the programs work? As Clinton noted the other day, there is no lobby for the poor children who would be competing for public funds.
In fact, there is a lobby of sorts -- black politicians in Congress and elsewhere who view the welfare changes as less reform than potentially punitive denials of entitlements to their constituents.
This is the problem for Clinton. He will have to decide whether the product of the Republican Congress is one he can accept without driving a wedge between himself and black Democrats whose support he will need in the election next year.
It is apparent the president made a mistake in not pushing welfare reform rather than health care reform last year. But it probably isn't reasonable to have expected Clinton to foresee the disaster on health care. And welfare reform looked like an ideal issue to push through a Democratic Congress in the year before Clinton must run for re-election.
But the 1994 election earthquake changed all that. There is indeed going to be welfare reform this year, but it is going to be far different from what Clinton had in mind.
The prospect is political jockeying by both Republicans and Democrats trying to prove how tough they can be on welfare. And the poor will have little say in how it turns out.