What Middle of the Road?

After four years of partisan fighting, it is now said the White House and the Republican-led Congress will govern in 1997 from the "middle of the road."

Hardly. In American politics as in highway driving, the middle of the road is used not for cruising but for passing. Prevailing traffic heads in opposing directions.

What is the middle-of-the-road position on the Democrats' ambitious fund-raising program last year? Both the president and vice president were in the room last spring when the Democratic National Committee decided to build a $125 million war chest. When questionable moneys were raised from Asian-connected individuals, Mr. Clinton passed it off as a DNC operation. When we hear of visits to the White House and the bed-and-breakfast use of the Lincoln room as inducements to donors, the Democrats' campaign finance system looks crass.

But Asian Americans do feel left out of the political system, and they are a growing and successful segment of American society. More broadly, in an increasingly global economy, pressure will increase to mesh US trade, technology, communications, and labor policy in a global framework, with political repercussions.

Mr. Gore's center-line maneuver, in his own Oval Office quest, would be to call the White House premises off limits to fund-raising. But can he afford not to follow Clinton's relentless courting of the campaign dollar?

What is the centrist view on whether Newt Gingrich, criticized for using educational TV financing for political projects, should stand again for Speaker of the House on Jan. 7? Was Mr. Gingrich too trusting of his lawyers' advice? Should his colleagues wait until the House Ethics Committee recommends a punishment? Will the punishment be calibrated to barely allow him to continue as Speaker? The Democrats will push for ouster. GOP hopefuls for the 2000 election may as soon the unpopular Gingrich be sacrificed now. The center-line course here may be too fine for any but professional political eyes to see.

What is the centrist position on the Oakland, Calif., school board's decision to make use of ebonics, black vernacular English, in the classroom? The current backlash against affirmative action, the ambition of many black leaders to bring minorities into mainstream (white) opportunity, and echoes of black separatism swirl around the proposal, made by a panel of teachers, parents, students, and scholars.

A mid-road maneuver might be to seek private foundation money, not federal funds, for a test of the program in Oakland. Although this writer has an advanced degree in education, "master teacher" status in English, and experience in living with minorities, he probably couldn't operate effectively in a classroom using ebonics. Perhaps others could. At least we would find out the proposal's value.

The fact is, much of what is taken as public policy decision is experimental. Americans did not know when they reluctantly followed the Supreme Court's orders allowing busing in districts that had practiced deliberate segregation what the educational impact would be.

Even Social Security was an experiment. Tinkerers now want to include government workers in contributing, or to pay out less to the wealthy. The latest twist is to set aside some portion of Social Security funds for investing in equities (ironically at a time when stocks may be overvalued). Who knows what economic conditions will be like 10 years hence, let alone 75 years from now when the retirement system is expected to be $3 trillion short? What is the mid-course between Wall Street and widows?

Politics is prolonged struggle. Citizens want it intelligently, fairly, but hard pressed.

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

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