• U.S.

CAMPAIGN ’96: WHERE’S THE BEEF?

6 minute read
Matthew Miller

HE SAYS BOB DOLE HAS GOT “NO ideas.” And Pat Buchanan has got the “wrong” ones. But walking the path of hubris that led Gary Hart off a cliff in 1988, Lamar Alexander insists he alone has the “new ideas” a new millennium deserves. So goes the sound bite. But Alexander’s signature proposals don’t always live up to their billing. Many have been kicked around for years, dropped as unwise, shirk the tough calls or come with so few details that they raise more questions than they answer.

Take Alexander’s biggest idea, captured in his refrain that Americans need to “expect less from Washington and more from ourselves.” While it sounds like an apt theme for the ’90s, the problem is that Alexander applies it mainly to needy Americans who don’t vote Republican. He has a radical plan to phase out the federal safety net over five years, for example, and pass the buck to local charities. Yet Alexander leaves much larger entitlements that go to the better-off Americans, including Medicare and Social Security, untouched.

His welfare proposal largely resurrects Ronald Reagan’s controversial (and unenacted) “new federalism,” putting $50 billion yearly in food stamps, nutrition programs and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) under state discretion, while the Federal Government pays state Medicaid costs. To help local charities pick up any slack, Alexander would offer a $500 tax credit for every American to give to the group of their choice. The idea is to rekindle the personal involvement that G.O.P. virtuecrats like William Bennett say made for more “effective compassion” before Uncle Sam got in the way.

Is any of this sensible? There’s little doubt that it’s time to sort out the confusion between federal and state duties. And by “marrying liberal ends with conservative means,” as Urban Institute scholar Isabel Sawhill says a tax credit tries to do, we may be able to “get past our current impasse and find common ground.” The real question is whether the social safety net is the right thing to devolve, as opposed to more dubiously “national” tasks like bridge building and job training.

Critics of devolution argue that these safety nets were federalized in the 1960s and ’70s because states had failed to provide a floor of support for the neediest. Good intentions aside, the political realities in state capitols haven’t changed much since. afdc benefit levels, which are set by the states, have fallen on average 47% in real terms since 1970. There’s reason to fear that these trends would worsen if states had to foot the whole bill. Under today’s system of federal matching grants, for example, Mississippi thinks twice about cutting a dollar from welfare because it then loses up to four dollars from the Federal Government. Without this incentive, experts foresee a benefit-stripping “race to the bottom,” fueled by states’ desire to be stingier than their neighbors to avoid attracting new dependents.

The notion that better-funded charities can handle the job, meanwhile, may be fanciful. New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the Senate’s welfare wise men, says that 30 years ago a proposal like Alexander’s might have been possible. But no more. “Sixty-seven percent of the kids in Detroit are on AFDC in the course of a single year,” he says. “The Catholic bishops will tell you they can’t take care of that.” Worse, Alexander’s plan could balloon the deficit. His charity tax credit, much of which rewards people for gifts they’d make anyway, would cost $20 billion a year. And thanks to soaring Medicaid costs, the federal-state swap he proposes could add another $50 billion to the deficit by 2000.

On education Alexander revived the 1992 “G.I. Bill for Kids” he wrote as Bush’s Education Secretary, which offers vouchers of up to $2,000 for low-income children to use for private school. Like many G.O.P. reformers, Alexander wants to shake up the public-education monopoly and give poor kids a choice, a model that has shown promise in experiments like one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Still, if Alexander means it when he says trapping kids in bad schools is “incomprehensible,” his $1 billion plan, which would reach less than 6% of the 9 million poor kids between the ages of 7 and 17, is only a start.

Alexander’s call for a citizen legislature in Washington that would meet only six months a year became a lot less attractive to the G.O.P. rank and file after they swept into power in 1994. His demand on the stump to “cut their pay and send them home” remains a crowd pleaser. But congressional experts are worried that for government to function during the “off season,” the President’s power to commit troops and spend money would become enhanced far beyond the checks and balances the Constitution envisions. These uncharted waters seem a high price to pay for reforms that stand little chance of luring the teacher- or farmer-statesmen for whom Alexander nostalgically yearns. What schools or farms, after all, can let people go half the year?

If anything, Alexander’s call for “a new branch of the armed services” to control illegal drugs and immigration is even more gimmicky. It’s also not new. Senator Al D’Amato, the Republican from New York, led a similar charge in the mid-1980s, which the Reagan Administration rebuffed. Long-standing military tradition, codified in the Posse Comitatus Act after the Civil War, bars soldiers from actions that could spill over into arrests and seizures of U.S. citizens. Says Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan Assistant Defense Secretary: “We train them to vaporize, not Mirandize.” Alexander says he knows this but offers no details, bridling at the very thought. He’d ask the Joint Chiefs for a plan, he says. That’s what Presidents do.

Presidents also make choices. Candidate Alexander hasn’t. He promises to “cut taxes on all Americans” and not cut defense. He won’t cut spending in ways that “break faith with earlier promises made by government to its citizens,” which sounds like a pass on such entitlements as farm subsidies and gold-plated civil service pensions. Then he claims he’ll balance the budget; his aides promise details, someday.

Despite these evasions, Alexander’s “less from Washington” mantra is not an empty slogan. Alone among candidates, the soft-spoken Tennessean goes out of his way to dampen what voters expect. No law passed in Washington, he says, can fix the social pathologies that leave eighth-graders gunned down in a Florida school or crack babies crying in a Michigan clinic. Only community action can. He wants citizens “to get off their butts.”

For the moment the man in plaid remains a paradox. On the one hand, he offers gimmicks. On the other, reality. There’s no questioning Alexander’s experience, savvy–and calculated caution. If he comes to trust voters enough to utter all that his sound bites hide, citizens may, to use Lamar’s refrain, “know what to do.”

–With reporting by John F. Dickerson with Alexander

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com