Washington's Great Divide: What Role for Government?

STRIP away differences on the minimum wage, line-item veto, and welfare reform. Look past the yelling about Newt's book deal, and Hillary's cattle futures, and New Covenants vs. Contracts With America, and the debate between Republicans and Democrats comes down to this: How big should the federal government be?

The resurgent GOP claims that voters back their vision of a smaller, less active Washington. Democrats retort that voters don't really have a narrow, Herbert Hooveresque view of government's fit role. They just want Washington to work better.

White House officials are counting on this difference in vision to distinguish President Clinton from his GOP opponents in a year when the president must of necessity move right. Republicans are counting on it, too - and hoping that voters sour on government will deliver the Executive Mansion to them two years hence.

In a rally-the-faithful speech to the Republican National Committee last week, RNC chairman Haley Barbour said 58 percent of those who voted GOP last fall did so because they wanted less government.

The 1994 midterm ``was the most ideological election of my lifetime,'' said Mr. Barbour. ``It was a victory for Republican ideas.''

Mr. Clinton, for his part, noted last week that it is true government can't solve all America's problems. Bureaucracy could be more effective and entrepreneurial. ``But I do not believe that government is inherently bad,'' said Clinton. Washington ``can still be on the side of average Americans, to help empower them.''

This debate - government as Snidely Whiplash vs. Washington as Dudley Do-right - is perhaps the most basic American political issue of the last 60 years. Throughout that time, the national consensus has swung from one pole to the other, point out political experts.

In the 1930s and mid-1960s, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson greatly expanded government programs in their attempts to deal with poverty and other problems. In the late 1950s and 1980s, Dwight Eisenhower and then Ronald Reagan attacked what they saw as wasteful, ineffective government that just hung on people's backs.

What's different today is the debate's parameters, experts say. For all their bluster about cutting Washington, Republicans of today still support a degree of federal involvement in American life far greater than their counterparts of 1964 might have agreed with, points out John Pitney, associate professor of government at California's Claremont McKenna College. After all, no one in the GOP is talking about eliminating Social Security.

For their part, the legacy of Mr. Reagan forces Democrats to make fiscal austerity a top priority. It has helped push the administration into an effectiveness drive labeled government ``reinvention.'' For Democrats ``reinventing government has traditionally not been a primary concern,'' points out Professor Pitney.

That doesn't mean there is no difference left between the parties, as some disaffected voters have long believed. Pitney says almost all the current Washington hot issues - balanced budget amendment, line-item veto, unfunded mandates, tax cuts, and so on -

can be better understood if voters keep in mind the basic difference in party attitudes towards government's role.

Democrats talk about ``efficiency,'' says Pitney, meaning doing what government does better. Republicans talk about ``effectiveness,'' meaning getting government to do the right thing.

As a party, the Democrats have long believed that a relatively powerful central government is necessary to counterbalance the power of economic interests such as large corporations, points out Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.

Republicans, for their part, see government as something that is an obstruction. In a sense this is a difference over what ``equal opportunity'' means.

``The Republicans want government out of the way,'' Ms. Sinclair says. ``Democrats say that is fine, but some of us are in wheel chairs and others of us are Olympic athletes.''

Of course, Republicans would also say Washington hasn't figured out how to turn the economy's bench warmers into contributing players. Welfare, in other words, doesn't work.

``The Republicans are trying, in a sense, to push the line of tough love. `We're doing this for your own good,' '' Sinclair says. ``Maybe they believe that. But in a sense, they think that a lot of people's problems are their own, and the poor will always be with us,'' regardless of what government does.

The current GOP swing toward smaller government has been developing since the 1970s, Sinclair says, as a group of ideological Republicans emerged. They aren't conservative in the literal sense of the word - protecting things as they are. Instead, they seek change.

``They want to strip away what government has done,'' says Sinclair. ``And they are convinced they are right.''

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