Continuity in 1997

There is one basic story in journalism and it has two parts: how things change and do not change. A higher premium is put on on the former, change, than on the latter, continuity. This can lead to hype or to imagining change where there is none, and to a distortion of what is going on.

The lead political story in 1996, the re-election of President Clinton and the Republican House and Senate, was a continuity story. Mr. Clinton's Cabinet reshuffle largely keeps his policy team either intact or in the hands of former number twos. No one has yet spotted signs of major new Clinton initiatives. Balancing the budget, adjusting Social Security's long-range outlook, recalibrating the cost-of-living index, re-evaluating the impact and wisdom of recent welfare reforms - important but ongoing topics - will be on the table. But meaningful campaign reform likely will not.

The past week's news about the TV rating system, like the V-chip that preceded it, is but another encounter in the attempt to make the public media, movies as well as television, contribute something constructive rather than damaging to society. The battle over children's thinking goes back at least to Socrates. Our household of television viewers has found it easier to switch off violent or inane stuff than to avoid the dumbing down of the English language that is tolerated on the home screen. The lapse in grammar and usage has recently been traced to the less demanding textbooks used in classrooms over the past couple of decades. One wouldn't shorten the 100-yard dash to 97 yards to improve running scores. So why lower standards for verbal performance?

Driving domestic politics are the long, slow, but steady gains in the economy. Improvement in the equities market, a steady and gently strengthening dollar, an ongoing shift to technology in all industries, the underwriting of the higher education industry through student debt, low borrowing rates, and low inflation have produced a rather benign state of domestic affairs at the end of 1996. Many are uneasy about the recovery's length and the stock market's exuberance. Still, momentum is carrying into 1997.

The last really big change abroad, the collapse of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, continues to yield aftershocks. Germany still labors to meld its two parts together. Russia, with the return of Yeltsin to daily control, struggles to make itself a coherent capitalist nation. The Jerusalem story has made advances since Jimmy Carter's days of achievement, so the big story remains positive despite standoffs such as that over the expansion of Jewish settlements. Clinton's role here may be to keep the peace direction in sight but not try to govern the pace of change.

In Asia and the Pacific rim, a region that Reagan focused on, a passage toward maturity appears under way. Japan's recession and the anticipated assumption of control of Hong Kong by Beijing next year are being taken in stride. This suggests a capacity to undergo cycles of change with the larger, long-term forces of continuity intact. A North Korea still near the edge, human rights abuses in China, and child labor are among the negatives. But the general approach of constructive economic engagement by Clinton and his predecessors, along with pressing for fairer trade and insisting on progress in areas like intellectual property rights, are having an effect.

Clinton appears to be a domestic policy buff, not a foreign affairs maven, except in economic matters. For the next year or two, European leaders also will be preoccupied with economic issues as they try to qualify their countries for a common currency club by reducing government debt in relation to output. The expectation for 1997 is thus for slow change in a direction already set.

Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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