WASHINGTON — OF all President-elect Clinton's Cabinet nominees, Donna Shalala presents the most liberal profile.
So she is likely to raise the most controversy in her confirmation hearings today and tomorrow for secretary of health and human services, according to some Republicans in the United States Senate.
Her political views have also raised the question in some minds about how seriously the Clinton administration is going to pursue the not-so-liberal welfare reforms the president-elect has listed among his half-dozen top priorities.
The Health and Human Services Department runs the largest welfare programs, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Mr. Clinton proposes, among other measures, a two-year limit on receiving AFDC benefits. But when Clinton first introduced Dr. Shalala to the press Dec. 11, she did not mention welfare reform among the five initial challenges facing her in the post.
The big question, says Douglas Besharov, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is "Whither welfare reform?"
Shalala has cut a national profile in navigating the minefields of race and gender politics in the university. As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Shalala is closely identified with what was one of the most restrictive regulations of campus speech in the country.
The issue is one that divides the political left. The view behind speech codes is that civility must be enforced through regulation to protect the dignity and standing of everyone in a community. This view is often linked to a concept of American society as essentially racist and sexist, a view Shalala has espoused. The countervailing view is that the best antidote for ugly speech is more speech, so that free exchange in the marketplace of ideas can expose what is cheap and spurious.
The University of Wisconsin's "Code for Campus Conversation" eventually ran afoul of constitutional free-speech rights and was altered beyond recognition. But Shalala was an advocate for the code at every stage, according to present and former faculty members at the university.
The speech code and her strong advocacy of affirmative action on campus inspired columnist Morton Kondracke to dub her the "high priestess of political correctness," referring to the pejorative phrase for leftist intolerance.
"I do think it's fair to say she's not a reformed or a `new' Democrat," says Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative author of the bestseller, "Illiberal Education," for which he interviewed Shalala. "I would describe her as a fairly uncritical advocate of affirmative action, multiculturalism, and the censorship of insensitive speech."
Mr. D'Souza adds: "She has been in the vanguard of what is crudely called political correctness."
In fairness, Shalala arrived on the Wisconsin campus at a time when it was in turmoil over racial incidents. The speech codes were passed by the faculty Senate and the Board of Regents for the statewide university system virtually without dissent.
The code barred speech or expression that intentionally demeaned a person's race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or age. It furthered barred speech or expression that created a hostile environment.
In practice, the code was enforced mainly against male students who insulted women in off-campus bars. Few, if any, cases of racist speech arose.
Over the next couple of years, however, misgivings began to arise among many at the college on free-speech grounds, says Jim Baughman, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin. Shalala "did not back down," he says.
But he also notes with some admiration the skills she displayed in letting others act as lightning rods. Now, Dr. Baughman says, she is "trying to fudge her position on the speech code," arguing that it would have been more radical without her leadership.
The code was eventually ruled in violation of free-speech guarantees by a federal judge and revised by the university. Shalala testified before the regents in favor of the revised code, but it was heavily pruned last year after the United States Supreme Court ruled against a hate-speech ordinance in St. Paul, Minn.
Nearly everyone who has been associated with Shalala at Wisconsin describes her in similar terms: as a strong liberal in her political views but not doctrinaire. Instead, she is said to be a skilled politician.
"As a manager, Shalala is very pragmatic," says Bill Gormley, a Georgetown University political scientist who taught at Wisconsin under Shalala. "She adapts to changing circumstances, works well with Republicans, is not at all doctrinaire and not at all dogmatic."
He adds, "She is likely to think creatively about helping the disadvantaged in lean budget times."
Shalala's strongest connection to the Clintons is through Hillary Clinton. Shalala succeeded Mrs. Clinton as chairman of the board of the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group that advocates more federal spending for disadvantaged children.