Covenant or Contract?

ASPLIT-SCREEN effect at the beginning of one Boston-area TV station's late newscast Tuesday evening put President Clinton's State of the Union speech in its larger context: Did the public want to know more about the O.J. Simpson trial, with its pictures of blood-soaked evidence and controversy over a juror's accidental moment on camera, or the direction in which the president of the United States proposed to lead the country? Not sure, the station tried to tell both stories simultaneously.

Republicans are energized about their ``mandate'' from voters to reduce government, and Democrats are ready to vigorously defend what they think still works well. A segment of the public is involved in, if not exactly transfixed by, the debate. But a huge number of Americans - 61 percent of whom didn't vote in November - are not impressed by the shouting across the aisle in Washington. They feel government is either unable or unwilling to help them in any significant way.

President Clinton tried to reach some of these uninvolved citizens in his prime-time speech. He reintroduced his idea of a ``new covenant'' toh the American people, in contrast with the Republican's ``contract.'' One can argue that a covenant and a contract are the same thing. But with its Biblical connotations, ``covenant'' projects a warmer, more personal, and less legalistic kind of promise. It speaks to a difference he's trying to delineate with Republicans: government as ``leaner, not meaner.''

Recognizing the new political landscape before him, the president sought to be humble. He allowed, for example, that he had misjudged what was possible or desired on health-care reform. But in firmly promising not to permit repeal of the assault-weapons ban and not to use welfare reform to punish the poor, he created some political distance from Republicans. He declared himself a champion of the middle class - a role the GOP also claims - and vowed to help the underclass move up, an idea Republicans haven't emphasized.

Majority leader Dick Armey noted that Clinton remarked favorably on seven of the 10 items in the GOP ``Contract With America.'' The truth is that there is much common ground between this president who has returned to his ``new Democrat'' roots and the new congressional majority.

The question now is whether they can find a way to work together to pass legislation that helps Americans. The president recognized that he cannot act without the Republicans; he held out an olive branch. They now must choose whether to grasp it. They must decide if getting half a loaf - enacting, say, seven-tenths of the ``contract'' - is worth risking that the president may get some of the credit.

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