Democrats Tout Government Lite

The party gambit: that voters want the federal role trimmed but not chopped

Believing that Republicans have gone too far in their assault on government, Democrats are making a new case for an active role for Washington - but with limits.

Issue by issue, party leaders already at the convention and President Clinton, who arrives here tonight after a headline-capturing train ride through the Middle West, are crafting a new vision of partnership between Washington, the states, and local communities. The new mantra: foster greater individual responsibility but also protect those in need.

It is an exercise in caution. The party wants to show that it learned from the 1994 midterm elections, when voters broke a 40-year run of Democratic control on Capitol Hill, and that it has moderated its views on the role of government. But Democrats also believe that the new GOP congressional majority misinterpreted the public mood and pushed its antigovernment philosophy too far.

Hence, the Democrats are unveiling a series of new initiatives on crime, the environment, and education that reflects, as the Democrats' platform states, "the end of the era of big government and a final rejection of the misguided call to leave our citizens to fend for themselves."

If voters want smaller government, Democrats contend, they also want safer streets, better schools for their children, and cleaner drinking water. If they want less federal regulation, they also want workplace safety, pension security, and better health care - functions that call for some level of federal involvement.

"This silly notion that government is fundamentally evil is something we've rejected," says Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "Let's make a difference on the things that people really need - education, home ownership, health care - and try to focus resources through government policy to provide real opportunities for people."

Before arriving in Chicago, the president was expected to outline a set of proposals to clean up toxic waste sites and foster greater community participation in protecting the environment. He will also unveil a plan to revitalize inner cities. Earlier in the week, he proposed a ban on handgun sales to people convicted of domestic violence and called for a new commitment to boosting literacy among children.

In speech after speech in the United Center, prominent Democrats and average citizens spoke of social problems that they believe require national leadership and a degree of government activism.

Michael Robbins, a Chicago police officer who was shot during an ambush two years ago and who now heads a program to help gunshot victims and their families, defended the ban on assault weapons.

Evan Bayh, the keynote speaker who in eight years as governor of Indiana built a $1.8 billion budget surplus without raising taxes, was expected to promote a centrist vision of partnership between Washington and the states on social policies such as welfare and crime. He had not spoken at press time.

As Democrats espouse their new vision for government, a watchword is incrementalism. Rather than attempting huge reforms such as Clinton's failed 1993 health-care reform, the party now advocates smaller, bipartisan changes. The Kennedy-Kassebaum health-care bill that Clinton signed last week, a measure making health care portable from one job to another, is an example.

At a lunch meeting with reporters, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt discussed the need for a new approach to environmental concerns. The network of laws and regulations for ecological protection - such as the Clean Air Act and the Wilderness Act - is in place. But as political pressure builds to soften laws protecting wetlands and endangered species, Mr. Babbitt argues, Washington needs to promote local solutions to environmental problems.

"The burden is on us to write a new environmental vision," he says. "We have to invent new governmental relationships to address these complex issues. We need to empower communities, give them more of a role. Let's look at cooperative ways to turn problems around."

None of this is to say, though, that the Democratic Party has totally let go of its New Deal moorings. Even as it promotes a more modest and moderate agenda, the party still adheres to many of its more liberal traditions.

Yesterday was called "Families First" day in Chicago, marking a series of events highlighting the congressional Democrats' agenda to promote economic stability in the home. In addition to seeking pension reform, further changes in health care to cover children, and job retraining, the package - unveiled in June - takes aim at corporate action that threatens the security of employees.

"We want to repeal tax incentives that encourage businesses to send jobs overseas and address the disparity between men and women on pensions," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota. "Most people who fall in the lower 80 percent of the economic scale are not benefiting from the robust economy - in part because corporations continue to downsize, in part because jobs that used to be unskilled now require skills that people don't have."

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