Clinton's Welfare Decision May Split Democratic Party Wide Open

By David Broder Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 9, 1996 | Go to article overview

Clinton's Welfare Decision May Split Democratic Party Wide Open


David Broder Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The focus on the Republican battle over the abortion plank in the 1996 platform has obscured the fact that President Bill Clinton's decision to sign the Republican welfare reform bill has set the stage for what is likely to be an even more divisive struggle inside the Democratic Party over the next four years.

If the plan works as its designers hope in moving people from welfare to work, Clinton will be hailed along with such Republican sponsors as Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Reps. Clay Shaw of Florida and Mike Castle of Delaware. These are decent people who have no wish to inflict hardship on welfare mothers or their children, let alone exploit the ill-disguised racism that lurks behind much of the welfare issue demagoguery. Appalled as virtually all Americans are by the human and financial cost of welfare dependency, they are looking for that elusive fix.

But the step they have taken in ending the 60-year-old federal guarantee of minimal financial support for needy parents and children is fraught with peril. There is enormous uncertainty whether state-run programs, partly funded by limited federal block grants, will in fact induce people to leave welfare and find jobs or whether they will collapse when the first downturn in the economy swells the unemployment rolls.

The best evidence from experimental welfare-to-work programs - as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., a lifelong student of poverty problems, repeatedly has pointed out - is that they reduce the numbers needing assistance only marginally, and only if more money is invested in job training, counseling, child care and transportation subsidies at the start.

The bill the Republicans wrote and Clinton agreed to sign calls for less federal spending and demands greater results - something that is possible in the real world only if states and localities vastly increase the human and dollar resources they commit to the effort. And that is both a fiscal and a political improbability.

Whether the effort succeeds or fails, Clinton will go down in history as the man who made a historic break with the tradition and the core of his Democratic Party. Already, it is clear that he has driven a wedge down the center of the party and caused a split that is likely to echo in the primaries of the year 2000 - and beyond.

Even knowing that Republican votes would send the bill to Clinton's desk and that he had decided to sign it, exactly half the Democrats in the House and 21 of the 46 voting on it in the Senate voted no, because they could not stomach what the president swallowed.

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