WASHINGTON -- Both President Clinton and his Republican opponent, Bob Dole, are playing politics with the welfare-reform issue, but Senator Dole has a clear advantage.
That Republican edge flows from the fact that there is no party constituency for the welfare system as it exists today. By contrast, the president must avoid allowing his program for reform to be seen as an attack on black Americans, who make up a disproportionate share of the welfare population and cast a disproportionate share of their vote for Democratic candidates.
Criticism of the welfare system is a crowd-pleaser with voters and particularly working-class Americans who resent their tax money being spent on those who, as Phil Gramm likes to say, ride in the wagon rather than help to push it.
But the Republicans exaggerate the potential of welfare reform. The program that uses the most money, Aid for Families with Dependent Children, costs the federal government less than $18 billion a year, a tidy sum but not enough to solve the deficit problem.
Moreover, although there are obvious abuses in the program, it is unrealistic to expect substantial savings when most of the money is used to support children whose numbers are not going to decline overnight because of some reform in the system. On the contrary, any thoughtful welfare reform -- as most Republican as well as Democratic experts agree -- is going to cost extra money initially because of the need to provide day care for those vTC children while their mothers learn the skills that might take them off the rolls permanently.
The president's problem with the welfare-reform issue stems from the way he has handled it in the past. During the 1992 campaign candidate Clinton used his commitment to ending "welfare as we know it" as one of his prime credentials in proving to conservative Democrats that he was not another Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis.
Once in office, Mr. Clinton decided to put off pursuing the welfare issue until the second two years of his term, for both logical and political reasons. The first was that it made more sense to try to fix the health-care system before tackling welfare because the costs of the latter are so much dependent on the costs of the former.
A re-election issue
Beyond that, however, the White House thinking then was that the welfare-reform issue was an excellent one to pursue -- along with a middle-class tax cut -- as the time for re-election approached. What Mr. Clinton and his advisers did not anticipate, of course, is that the Republicans would win control of Congress.
The result is that Mr. Clinton is now engaged in a daily running battle with Senator Dole, Republican governors and Republican congressmen over who has the right ideas for reforming the system and, more to the point, who deserves the political credit, if any, that ensues.
The president must tread carefully, however, not just because the welfare constituency itself is largely Democratic but because the way the issue is handled can influence the thinking -- and campaign enthusiasm -- of black Democratic leaders and party liberals in general.
No one is going to argue that the existing system is sound. Nor will anyone claim that there is not an obvious opportunity to save money in the long run. And the idea of turning the program back to the states sounds good, on first hearing at least, to those who believe that a state bureaucracy will be more efficient than the federal bureaucracy.
But the basic question is whether a Democratic president is willing to preside over a reform that ends the long-standing and basic entitlement of federal protection for children born into poverty. There is a reason that welfare programs became federalized in the first place and that reason is simply that some states didn't provide that protection to such a powerless constituency as the poor.
The argument isn't over saving money; everyone is in favor of that. The question is how you do it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 5/24/96