ON Sept. 14, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) completed a study indicating that under the House welfare-reform bill, 2.1 million children would be pushed into poverty. Under the somewhat milder Senate version, the number would be 1.1 million. That would increase the number of poor children by 11 percent. Secretary Donna Shalala went to the White House, handed the report to President Clinton, and urged him to oppose both versions of the bill that would end the federal welfare entitlement.
But on Sept. 17, three days later, Clinton announced he would be willing to sign the Senate version of the bill. In another era, the secretary would have resigned. That is precisely what Health, Education and Welfare Secretary John Gardner did in 1968 when President Johnson signed welfare restrictions over his objections, while asking for a tax surcharge to help finance the Vietnam War. But an aide to Shalala said, ''That is not the way she operates.''
While sitting on the HHS report, White House aides decided on a strategy to combat the whole GOP budget package. That strategy was to emphasize the negative impact on children of cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, disability, and other programs. And so Cabinet secretaries and other officials fanned out across the country, saying the Republican budget was bad for children. Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a speech that national policies, including health care and welfare, ''are mirrored every day in the lives and experiences of our children.''
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, charging the administration with ''an obscene act of social regression,'' accused it of covering up the HHS report. Finally, the White House admitted the existence of a preliminary report and said a more complete one was being drawn up. If anybody in the White House saw a contradiction between its pro-child policy and its welfare policy, nobody was saying so.
Those who have worked with the president on welfare say that no one understands the issue and details better than he does. But Mr. Clinton is pursuing a reelection course that requires him to be perceived as not going back on his promise to ''end welfare as we know it.'' He is operating under the so-called ''triangulation strategy'' conceived by his political adviser, Richard Morris, under which he runs against Democrats as well as Republicans, positioning himself in something defined as the center.
But running against Democrats is one thing; running against poor kids is something else. Trying to conceal the evidence while parading his concern for children is something else again.