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Parties Reassess Role of Government in Prelude to '88 Vote

September 08, 1986|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

WASHINGTON — "Government often does good things badly," New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo admonishes his fellow Democrats. This from the current hero of the liberals, who have long exalted government cures for society's ills.

Meanwhile, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, regarded by many as the true heir to President Reagan's mantle of conservative leadership, reproves his Republican colleagues: "All too often we give the impression that we think government is the enemy of the people."

Such stereotype-defying pronouncements typify the ferment as both political parties strive to use the lessons of the Reagan era to draft competing messages for the coming struggle for the White House.

In broadest terms, the Democrats, long the advocates of federal government activism to achieve social justice, are increasingly acknowledging the limitations of government. And the Republicans are more often recognizing that individual liberty and economic efficiency are not always sufficient to meet the responsibilities of government to its citizens.

Huge Stakes

It is a wrenching task for both parties, because it demands to some extent turning away from beliefs and policies deeply rooted in the past. But the stakes are huge: to establish an enduring sequel to the politics of both the so-called "Reagan Revolution" and the New Deal.

Toward that goal, Cuomo and other liberal Democrats urge tapping the resources of the private sector and of state and local government to redress inequities once deemed the exclusive province of Washington.

The Democratic Policy Commission, created last year by national party leaders to find fresh approaches to longstanding public concerns, asserts that Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has dramatically cut welfare costs by offering job training and placement. It also touts another program launched by Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, which enlists private community agencies to provide day care for needy children.

Incentives Pushed

Kemp and other Republicans, meanwhile, are promoting federal legislation to establish incentives for private efforts to deal with hardships that many conservatives hitherto regarded as none of the federal government's business.

Among the ideas: tuition vouchers that would enable parents in low-income areas to direct tax revenue to the schools they want their children to attend, either public or private, and assistance for tenants in low-cost public housing to buy the units they live in.

One reason for the pervasive ferment is that the 1988 election is the first since 1960 in which the incumbent President has been constitutionally barred from succeeding himself, thus clearing the political stage for change.

Another factor is the profound impact of Reagan. His presidency may have done much to shatter the shibboleths of the liberal Democratic creed, but it also leaves behind some major new problems--notably a towering budget deficit and a record trade imbalance--and a persistent level of poverty.

'Take Responsibility'

Republican efforts to chart the future seem markedly influenced by the disappointments of the Reagan Administration. "If you are going to take credit, you are going to have to take responsibility," says Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia. At the same time, Democratic ideological strategists greatly reflect the Administration's accomplishments.

Democrats should require the government to do two things, Cuomo urged in a Manhattan policy forum earlier this summer: "One, insist that people help themselves as much as possible, and second, find intelligent, fair and effective ways to help people to help themselves."

Dukakis' 3-year-old welfare program in Massachusetts, nicknamed ET for Employment and Training Choices, is hailed by Democrats as a prime example of that approach. ET is reputed to have found jobs for 23,000 welfare recipients, at an average wage of $5 an hour. Skeptics point out that this accomplishment was made easier by the state's thriving economy, which pushed unemployment to less than 4%.

Day-Care Centers

In Arizona, the day-care program organized by the state and drawing its main financial support from private organizations, such as YMCAs and PTAs, has won "rave reviews," says Babbitt's press secretary, Michael McCurry, though he concedes that profit-making day-care centers have complained that the free centers are taking away business.

Another Arizona innovation, cited as an example of "Democrats making it work" by the party's policy commission, is free medical care for needy children, provided through the state's Health Care Cost Containment System, a health maintenance organization. State payments to the HMO are less than those previously made to clinics and hospitals through the Medicaid program, and care has improved, Babbitt asserts.

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