White House Hamlet

THE country has spent the last three years trying to figure out just what Bill Clinton stands for. His public poll ratings, currently rising, have fluctuated in reflection of public confusion over his positions. He has less than a year to make his core beliefs plain.

Is Mr. Clinton a ''New Democrat,'' looking for new, streamlined ways of applying Democratic ideals, as he proclaimed during the 1992 campaign? Or is he really a traditional Democrat bent on preserving, or even expanding, the federal government's role in Americans' daily lives, as his actions since his election seem to indicate? Either position is honorable, but he can't be both successfully.

Candidate Clinton promised to ''end welfare as we know it.'' Instead, President Clinton offered up a federalized health-care system both confusingly complex and rife with implications for government interference in individual health-care decisions.

Now the president is threatening to veto compromise welfare legislation close to the Senate bill he earlier said he would sign. Liberals in his own party, some civil rights groups, and advocates are pressuring him to veto, pointing to a new administration study purporting to show that even the Senate bill would force 1.2 million more children into poverty.

The suspicious timing of the study aside, it's hard to understand how one can draw conclusions in advance about what states will do with welfare programs. Opponents of welfare reform over the past several months have spoken as though the states will just let people starve. No governor is likely to permit such a course.

As of this writing, House and Senate conferees have agreed on a compromise that would spend $2.5 billion of the $3 billion originally called for in the Senate bill. It would cut federal welfare spending by $81.5 billion over seven years, abolish Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and deny federal benefits to future immigrants for five years. Parents on welfare would be required to work after two years and their families' benefits would end after five. States would decide who can get welfare and the benefit structure.

The conferees decided to turn the food-stamp and some school-lunch programs over to states as block grants. The conference bill would let states decide whether to grant benefits to teenage mothers and to single mothers on welfare who have more children.

It's not certain that this type of welfare reform will work as envisaged. But there's broad bipartisan agreement that the current system needs fixing. A look at Michigan's drastic welfare reform shows that some recipients are going back to work while aid in some form continues for those who cannot. But the success of the program's next stages is not a given.

The compromise bill isn't perfect. We suspect further experimentation and alterations will be necessary at both federal and states levels. But it's close enough to the original Senate version the president said he could accept. He should sign it - unless he's decided once and for all that he's not a New Democrat.

The conference welfare bill is close enough to the original Senate version Clinton said he could accept.

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