FOR the first time in a generation, a Great Debate has begun over the role of government in the nation's future. President Clinton wants to reform Washington, while incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich wants to dismantle the welfare state. The choice between the two will be momentous in shaping policy and testing whether the country can be led by Congress instead of the White House.
The looming battle between reformers and dismantlers grows out of deep public disillusionment with government. Opinion surveys report 3 out of 4 Americans trusted Washington to do the right thing during the 1950s. Today less than one-fifth of the people feel that way. Whatever the causes of this erosion - the stagnation of real wages, the explosion of the federal deficit, the rise of media-driven attack politics - voters' demand for change is the defining political reality of the 1990s.
For a beleaguered Clinton, the remedy lies in improving government's performance. He is betting that the Republican majority in Congress will go too far in cutting government programs and taxes. The White House aims to gain the upper hand by offering a step-by-step alternative to make the system work better.
Clinton's vision of reform is to streamline the federal bureaucracy, while still keeping Washington in the forefront of meeting major economic challenges. The most urgent priorities - upgrading the quality of the work force, winding down welfare, restructuring health care - must be addressed on a national scale. A lean, innovative, market-oriented government is part of the solution.
Tactically, the president's fight for political survival has prompted him to stress how much he will reduce the size of government to gain leeway for a middle-class tax cut. His hastily assembled five-year, $60 billion package of spending and tax cuts tries to lay out a ``responsible'' option - ceding to public pressure without sparking a hike in interest rates that would choke off the current recovery.
Strategically, Mr. Clinton cannot abandon his party's stake or his belief in government activism. Despite the opposition of some liberal Democrats, he will champion a reformist agenda in the run-up to the 1996 elections.
But Mr. Gingrich and like-minded dismantlers claim a mandate that goes far beyond reform. They see themselves as agents of deep structural change. Their remedy is far less government. They attribute the nation's economic and social problems mostly to an entrenched, liberal Washington elite that has lost touch with everyday American life.
For dismantlers, the 1994 election has created a historic opportunity to roll back Washington's power, drive accountability closer to the people, and energize the private sector.
Politically, the dismantlers feel confident that they have marginalized Clinton. They regard his spending and tax proposals as pale imitations of theirs. They note the departure of his most valuable Cabinet member, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, and his low standing with Democrats in Congress. They see upcoming disclosures over Clinton's financial activities in Arkansas adding to his vulnerability.
Nevertheless, Gingrich and his allies feel acute pressure to deliver on their own 10-point ``Contract With America.'' Its objective is to force Washington to live within its means while strengthening the role of states and localities, reducing tax burdens on families, providing incentives for savings and investment, and imposing term limits in Congress. Republican leaders worked through December to have detailed legislative proposals ready by the time Congress convenes tomorrow.
The dismantlers face three imposing obstacles in trying to move their agenda forward:
First, Congress by nature is reactive rather than a leadership body. It is notoriously difficult to maintain party discipline. Some insiders already predict that social moderates and fiscal conservatives are liable to break Republican ranks to become a swing factor between their own party and the White House.
Second, the insurgents will meet tremendous resistance when they challenge the vested interests of farmers, the urban poor, the elderly, and other constituencies. Should they fail to curb entitlements and go ahead with tax cuts, they will be held accountable for the rise in interest rates that is likely to follow.
Third, states and localities will oppose additional burdens without corresponding resources. Republican control of virtually all key governorships should ease the problem, but does not guarantee easy decentralization.
The dismantlers are nonetheless ready for a bitter showdown to overturn business as usual in Washington. They are shrewdly led, and they have been preparing for this struggle for years. They also believe that they have already set favorable terms for debate. The initiative is theirs to lose, no longer Clinton's to win. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.