A Maverick Governor's Pragmatic Streak

Michigan's John Engler, one of a new breed of Republican revolutionaries, gains in national prominence with welfare plan

IN political caricature, Michigan's John Engler often is depicted as a rough-riding, entitlement-busting, GOP governor - the kind of undaunted conservative that a presidential ticket mate might be made of.

But in his latest initiative to push the agenda of the Republican revolution forward, he is cutting a more complex visage - one neither black nor white, but more moderate gray.

''He is very practical,'' says Robert Klein, vice president of Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, Mich. ''He looks for programs that work, even if some of them have a liberal tinge to them.''

Mr. Engler, a rising star in the GOP, is in the vanguard of a new breed of Republican revolutionary. These mavericks (who include fellow Republican Govs. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, George Voinovich of Ohio, and William Weld of Massachusetts) embrace the conservative agenda, but in a way that is practical rather than ideological.

Their pragmatism was evident last week at a meeting of the National Governors Association. The state chief executives carved out compromise plans on two key national issues - welfare reform and Medicaid - that have stymied Congress and the White House.

For his part, Engler has designed a welfare-reform plan for Michigan, dubbed ''Project Zero.'' His plan tackles the idea of a bloated, dole-dealing state, but shows a willingness to mobilize a streamlined government to take up thorny challenges, like aid to the poor, analysts say.

''Engler doesn't beat up on government as much as some House Republicans, and he recognizes that government can play a positive role on many problems,'' Mr. Klein says.

Engler is deemed vice presidential material for several reasons: He has cut welfare costs by $100 million and nudged 70,000 families off the state dole; his popularity is high in a pivotal electoral states of the industrial Midwest; and he is a Roman Catholic, a group targeted by Republican strategists. Moreover, the governor's apparent flexibility, as shown in Project Zero, is good news for his mainstream appeal in a national election.

''Engler's reforms are more in line with President Clinton's views on how to move families from welfare to work than they are with those of Congress,'' says Sheldon Danziger, professor of social work and public policy at the University of Michigan.

Engler's Project Zero, to be implemented in six areas of Michigan on April 1, implicitly affirms the Clinton administration assertion that society has a duty to help the poor. Because Project Zero is designed to help all welfare recipients find work, it will provide transportation, child care, and financial assistance for as long as a person seeks employment.

Moreover, the project will support children born to mothers on welfare and allow recipients to perform voluntary community service to retain their benefits, provisions opposed by House Republicans.

Engler said in a recent interview that Project Zero epitomizes the sort of anti-poverty programs that will crop up across the country if Washington gives states broad leeway in spending lump-sum federal payments, or ''block grants.''

Project Zero ''is exactly what we have been arguing to have the authority and power to do: Give us the pure grant and then hold us accountable,'' Engler said.

The project might be part of an effort by Engler to soften his image as a ruthless cutter of entitlements this election year as the public scrutinizes possible vice presidential candidates, say analysts.

Polls in Michigan last month underscored the danger for Engler in cleaving too closely to right-wing Republicans. Of voters polled, 67 percent judged Engler favorably, while 54 percent held an unfavorable opinion of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to EPIC/MRA, a polling firm here.

Speaker ''Gingrich is extremely unpopular in Michigan right now,'' says Bernie Porn, president of EPIC/MRA. Engler's only recent dip in favorability came in November, when ''his constant trips to Washington'' associated him closely with Gingrich.

Project Zero could undercut Democrats' claims that Republicans are inflexible and cold-hearted toward the poor, he says. If so, Engler would perform the same political double shuffle that has paid off so handsomely for him in Michigan.

Since taking office in 1991 Engler has repeatedly drawn bitter Democratic criticism of his policies and then relied on impressive results or shrewd maneuvering to completely discredit his detractors.

''The Democrats portray him as an Attila-the-Hun type who is insensitive and callous and mean-spirited, but in fact if you look at most of his rhetoric and actions, it has not been that way at all,'' says William Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

In 1991 Engler cut off general assistance to 80,000 able-bodied adults. He saved taxpayers $250 million but was savaged by Democrats as ''mean spirited.'' His popularity sagged to a politically lethal low.

Several months later, however, the economy began to boom and Engler convincingly posed himself as a friend of working men and women.

Similarly, in 1993 Democratic lawmakers, stung by criticism they were cool to property-tax relief, confronted Engler with a radical bill that would make a state sales tax instead of local property taxes the source for school funding. In a daring move, Engler called their bluff and enthusiastically signed the revolutionary bill into law.

Springing off from such tax-saving gambits, Engler in 1994 campaigned for re-election with the slogan ''Promises Made, Promises Kept'' and won in a 61 percent landslide.

Republican congressmen have elevated Engler's example to the status of political homily: Persevere with conservative initiatives despite public censure, and ultimately win vindication at the polls. They have used it to rally morale during their recent stand on the federal budget.

Ironically, Engler through Project Zero has moved more toward the bipartisan consensus on welfare that prevailed before Republicans swept into Congress in 1994. Project Zero ''reflects the bipartisan consensus that led to the Family Support Act of 1988 and somehow disappeared with the Contract With America,'' Mr. Danziger says.

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