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The politics of welfare Wisconsin plan: Clinton acceptance of GOP approach is cynical example of progress.

WELFARE POLICY, perhaps the issue that best encapsulates citizen frustration with Washington, rockets to the top of the political charts this week as both President Clinton and Bob Dole visit Wisconsin, the state whose Republican reform plan has won Mr. Clinton's calculated endorsement. Mr. Dole is expected to counter-punch today with a call for mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients and a strict five-year limit on cash assistance. Mr. Clinton's response Thursday will predictably be aimed at out-maneuvering his GOP opponents.

So far, the president who promised "to end welfare as we know it" has gotten away with vetoes of two GOP bills without suffering in the polls. His tactic has been to approve waivers allowing individual states to experiment.

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This has allowed the president to mollify if not satisfy critics to his left as well as his right. It is all part of his "triangulation" tactics, by which he tosses liberals some red meat while taking relatively conservative positions on matters with direct economic and budget impact. By painting Republicans as extremists while pilfering issues they want to use in the campaign, he drives his opponents nuts.

Republican outrage must be confirmation to Democratic pols that they are handling welfare just about right. But pitfalls abound. The National Governors Association headed by Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, a vice presidential prospect on the Dole ticket, has endorsed a bipartisan plan that Republicans have virtually adopted as their own. But because the GOP leadership in Congress wants to link it with more controversial Medicaid legislation, there could be a third Clinton veto -- with both parties arguing about who killed welfare.

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Such politicking is grounds for cynicism but not despair. As with health care, real innovation is coming at the state level while Washington whirligigs.

Governor Thompson's plan, described by Mr. Clinton as "one of the boldest yet attempted in America," would abolish the federal guarantee of cash assistance for poor children and replace it was wage subsidies for single mothers who work. While the president lauded the prospect of replacing the welfare check with a paycheck, the Children's Defense Fund long supported by first lady Hillary Rodman Clinton strongly protested the Wisconsin plan.

As the states wrestle with financial burdens that cannot be ignored, the guarded consensus symbolized by the president's acceptance of the Thompson plan represents progress, whatever the political motivation involved.

Pub Date: 5/21/96


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