IN domestic policy the biggest difference by far between George Bush and Bill Clinton and the parties they head involves the desired scope of government action. Spending by all levels of government has been climbing steadily, not just in absolute dollar terms but also as a percentage of GNP. It's now 40 percent.
Government's growth is evident, too, in areas where it doesn't tax and spend directly but rather imposes costs on the private sector - for example, mandating benefits employers must provide or imposing regulations that increase the cost of doing business.
What response does this progression call for? That's easily the most important domestic issue of our time.
The president and his party argue that ways must be found to stop the expansion of the state in order to maintain a sufficient sphere for individual choice and action. Though their leadership in promoting this result may be faulted, their underlying judgment is, I think, the right one.
The Democratic nominee and his party insist, however, that government must do more - because there are still unmet needs and persisting social problems. By this criterion, we will never stop until government spending is 100 percent of GNP.
In one sense, the present argument between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton is only the latest manifestation of a very old partisan divide, one that goes back at least to the Great Depression. But in another sense the current split is strikingly different from that of Franklin Roosevelt's time.
Roosevelt called for a bigger role for the state at a time when, here in the United States, it was still very small, and the country faced problems which state action was well suited to address. In contrast, the Democrats' present argument that government should do more comes after 60 years of steady, sweeping growth. And it comes at a time when the bloated, bureaucratic state is widely seen to be at least as problem-causing as problem-solving.
I am not reflexively condemning governmental action. The two political leaders in US history I most revere, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were nationalists who used government expansively to, in Herbert Croly's words, "make the nation more a nation." But all of my work as a political scientist leaves me convinced that the continued, promiscuous growth of the state poses a monumental threat to the nation's health and vitality.
But the current Democratic leadership seems determined to extend government's reach wherever prevailing conditions are not perfect - which is, of course, everywhere.
Hillary Clinton plays a very active role in her husband's presidential campaign, and her record as a "children's rights" activist certainly merits close examination.
But much of the Republicans' assault on that record misses the point when it focuses on what she has said or written about the family as such. The problem isn't that she "wants children to be able to sue their parents," but that for her "children's rights" is an ingenious vehicle for dramatically extending government's reach.
In this regard, two articles that Hillary Clinton wrote in the l970s, "Children Under the Law" (1973) and "Children's Rights: A Legal Perspective" (1979), are instructive. She argues that a great many interests which children have should be transformed - through court decisions and legislation - into legally enforceable rights. In the 1979 article, she acknowledged that "even among persons in the children's rights movement, there is a concern that extending rights to children against their parents is too
difficult to control," and she states that "in all but the most extreme cases such questions should be resolved by the families...."
But what are those "extreme cases" demanding new forms of government action? They are, Mrs. Clinton writes: "Decisions about motherhood and abortion, schooling, cosmetic surgery, treatment of venereal disease, or employment, and others where the child's future should not be made unilaterally by parents."
There may be a few areas of family life that can't be swept under one of these categories - but not many where a determined lawyer wouldn't try.
Children couldn't themselves, in most cases, initiate action on behalf of the sweeping new legal rights Hillary Clinton argues should be established. So it would be necessary to set up new governmental bureaucracies to see that these rights are not violated and to investigate allegations that they have been.
Once again, then, we have a Democrat proposing something that is at its core a call for a major new expansion, direct and indirect, of the scope of government.