WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Bob Dole, signaling that welfare will be a defining issue of the presidential campaign, delivered yesterday blistering attack on a system he termed liberalism's "greatest shame."
Welfare arose from the "good intentions" of compassionate people, the presumptive Republican nominee told a Wisconsin audience.
"But today," he said, "it stands as a grand failure that has crushed the spirit, destroyed the families and decimated the culture of those who have become enmeshed in its web."
Taking aim at President Clinton's record, which includes vetoing two Republican welfare overhauls while granting "waivers" so states can experiment with reforms, Dole touted a series of Republican measures, including allowing states to test recipients for drug use.
At the White House, Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry and domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed dismissed Dole's remarks as election-year posturing.
Reed pointed out that Clinton had approved 61 waivers in 38 states -- granting the states options Republicans insist on having.
"It's pretty clear that Senator Dole wants what President Clinton has already done," McCurry said.
But Dole drew attention yesterday to waivers the president has not approved, including Maryland's request to ease the earning and savings restrictions on welfare recipients in an effort to smooth the transition to work.
On Saturday, Clinton had moved to pre-empt Dole's Wisconsin speech by associating himself with Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's current proposal, the boldest so far in seeking to move people from welfare to work.
Thompson has proposed essentially eliminating cash assistance to able-bodied adults and instead guaranteeing poor people a job, along with child care, transportation and health insurance.
By way of rebuttal, Dole noted yesterday that Clinton has not, in fact, signed the Wisconsin waiver -- and that White House officials appeared to be backing away from it. He also ridiculed the president for trying to steal his thunder.
"If this keeps up, Bill Clinton won't have to make speeches anymore," Dole said. "All he'll have to do is to find out my stand on an issue and just stand up and say, 'Me too!' "
Clinton aides fired back that on one proposal -- drug testing -- it was Dole who was saying, "Me, too."
Clinton has granted waivers for experimental programs in five states that allow such testing.
"We welcome Senator Dole's endorsement of President Clinton's leadership on welfare reform and drug testing," said Ann Lewis, Clinton's deputy campaign manager. "Senator Dole obviously understands good ideas when he sees them."
Republicans sense that they have hit upon a potent issue.
Clinton came to office pledging boldly to "end welfare as we know it." He took 17 months to produce a first draft of welfare reform legislation. When it did arrive, Republicans and conservative Democrats were dismayed to find that the Clinton plan didn't save any tax dollars. In fact, it cost $9 billion more in job retraining and child-care expenses.
"There has been an expectation on the part of voters that [welfare reform] will save you money," said Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat. "But those of us in the trenches know it is hard work, and expensive, to get people off welfare."
Several influential Republican governors agree, but they denounced the Clinton plan as too little, too late.
"Tinkering," scoffed Thompson of Wisconsin, a Republican pioneer in welfare policy and a Dole vice-presidential possibility.
White House advisers were surprised by the GOP reaction.
They considered their proposal a good centrist bill intended to nudge able-bodied adults off welfare rolls and onto payrolls.
But as Democrats were moving rightward, some Republicans were becoming even more conservative, leaving the two parties still at odds.
For decades, Republicans had insisted on a work rule as essential to fix the welfare system.
Dubbed "workfare" by its proponents, it was denounced as "slavefare" by opponents.
In the 1990s, just as Democrats were concluding that Republicans were right, Robert Rector, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank, convinced many Republicans that work training was expensive and often futile, and that the long-term solution was curtailing out-of-wedlock births.
By the time Clinton's welfare bill was introduced in the summer of 1994, Republicans' attitudes had hardened. Sensing that the midterm elections would be good to them, GOP congressional leaders made little effort to negotiate with the president.
After the midterm elections put Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, it seemed their gamble had paid off.
The Republicans then passed a sweeping measure that would have ended the federal entitlement to welfare and sent money instead to the states.
Twice the Republicans passed such legislation, once in a broader budget bill and once by itself.
Twice Clinton vetoed it, each time expressing the Democrats' main objections:
That under the formulas proposed by the Congress, too much money was being taken out of the system too fast.
That freezing the benefits of unmarried women who have additional children on welfare would punish innocent children.
That in insisting on such requirements, the Republicans were "micromanaging" instead of adhering to their own stated goal of replacing a "one-size-fits-all Washington" approach.
That, although it cut off benefits after a time, it didn't push work requirements hard enough.
Republicans in Congress are now preparing another welfare bill. Democrats warn that if it is coupled with Medicaid trims, there will be no deal.
White House aides predict that Dole will produce something Clinton will have to veto. Republican officials are doing little to disabuse anyone of that notion.
"The only thing standing between America and genuine welfare reform is Bill Clinton," said Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. "If Bob Dole were president, genuine welfare reform would be a reality."
L Meanwhile, the states are showing the way on welfare reform.
Welfare rolls have declined by more than 1 million since 1992.
A. Sidney Johnson III, executive director of the nonpartisan American Public Welfare Association, attributes that decrease to improving economy, as well as a determined effort by the states to shift the emphasis of welfare from an "income-maintenance program" to one that stresses self-sufficiency.
Democrats insist that Clinton deserves some credit.
"I would argue that President Clinton has fulfilled his campaign pledge on welfare by giving me my waiver four months into his administration," said Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont.
Republicans counter that waivers are time-consuming, expensive and piecemeal.
Pub Date: 5/22/96