The Center Holds Just Fine

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington. -- A new entry to the PCHF (Political Cliche Hall of Fame) made a darting appearance a few months ago. It was stressed by some political analysts that "there is no center."

If so, that would be troubling. When sages say there is no center they mean there are very conservative elements and very liberal elements in our politics and not much in the middle.

That can easily lead to polarization, divisiveness and tumult. Perhaps worse.

Writing in a soon-to-be-published volume, "The Clinton Presidency -- First Appraisals" (Chatham House), liberal political scientist Walter Dean Burnham says that because of the ideological fervor of the non-centrist Republican Congress we will get polarizing "non-incremental" changes in policy.

This presumptive jolting surge to the right does not make Mr. Burnham happy.

Political scientist Norman Ornstein sees it quite differently.

Right after the election, when most pundits were overwhelmed by the perceived rightwardness of the Gingroids in Congress and the apparent disappearance of Republican moderates, Mr. Ornstein said, "Watch the Gypsy Moths," who are precisely Republican moderates.

Mr. Ornstein said the moderates would hold the balance of power. That would tend to yield only incremental change to the center-right, not stark, non-incremental change.

The returns are now coming in. The center has not only held, but the old tropism to the center seems quite powerful.

The Republican revolution is turning into a Republican evolution, which is best for them and best for the country. (Truth be told, I never thought the GOP's "Contract With America" was so very revolutionary.)

For example, the tough House version of welfare reform did not survive the Senate intact. Moderates diluted it. The Senate bill does not carry the House provision that would deny cash aid to teen-age mothers with illegitimate children.

Now the process moves on, and for the moment, President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole are the key players in the negotiations.

The ultimate result will likely be welfare reform that is tougher than Mr. Clinton's tardy mush served up last year, but not as tough as the conservative House version. Vigorous evolutionary change.

That was inter-house dilution. There is intra-house dilution going on as well.

In the Senate, where some center Democratic votes are needed to prevent filibusters, Senator Dole has not yet been able to pass a regulation bill that mandated sundown clauses, cost benefit analyses and other reform ideas that moderates think go too far.

In the House, 51 Republicans joined with Democrats to soften the impact of tough cuts in environmental law. Then the Republican leadership managed to push the bill through on a 210-210 tie vote, which allows passage.

But tie votes do not bespeak non-incremental change as the legislative process moves forward.

There are other straws in the moderating winds. House Speaker Newt Gingrich does not want to move forward with an anti-affirmative action bill until Republicans can replace it with a credible conservative war on poverty.

Mr. Clinton's pro-affirmative action speech pledged to execute recent court decisions limiting affirmative action, and also endorsed ideas that gave preference by income and economic geography, but not by race.

Moreover, Mr. Clinton is ditching or down-grading his political counselors of the porcine, populist left and looking more toward centrist advisers as he tries to reinvent himself as a New Democrat for the 117th time.

All this does not mean that "the center" invariably provides the best policy prescriptions.

I think that the House provision on no-welfare-to-teen-age-mothers makes sense because it sends a signal that this government will no longer subsidize and encourage irresponsible behavior.

But brokered end games do tend to yield safer results. The winners are not as happy, but the losers don't go away trying to start revolutions.

If it is seen that the winners are moving in the right direction, they will keep on winning, and keep on going.

America is a vastly successful nation. Such nations do not need revolutions to make progress.

TTC They do need vigorous evolutions, from the center, and that seems to be what we're getting.

Ben Wattenberg, is a syndicated columnist.

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