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Rx for the Problem '90s: Some Odd-Couple Politics : Government: Elements of the left and right are putting away their ideological gloves and forming alliances to develop successful programs.

December 22, 1991|Stuart Butler and Will Marshall | Stuart Butler is director of domestic and economic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. Will Marshall is director of the Progressive Foundation

WASHINGTON — Something odd is happening in U.S. politics: Elements of the left and right are coalescing around a post-ideological agenda for America. Evidence that such a politics is emerging comes not only from think tanks and political theorists, but also from innovations that defy traditional labels. Consider:

--In New York, Andrew Cuomo's private HELP program offers decent housing for homeless people at two-thirds the cost of lodging them at the city's welfare hotels. Cuomo, a liberal, attributes his success to bypassing public bureaucracies and enforcing strict standards of behavior. Government's role, according to him, should be to finance but not necessarily deliver social services.

--In Chicago, public-housing chief Vince Lane is attempting to evict drug dealers from the city's high-rise projects and disarm gangs, prompting suits from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Assn. Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley is urging big-city mayors to "privatize everything you can" to improve municipal services.

--In Minnesota, Democratic legislators and a Republican governor have joined to break the public-school monopoly by allowing private groups to start "charter schools," which are licensed but not run by school districts. In Milwaukee, a plan to let inner-city children attend private schools on public vouchers was pushed through the Wisconsin legislature by Polly Williams, a black liberal who was Jesse Jackson's state chairman in the 1988 presidential campaign.

The new politics signified by these examples has several defining characteristics. One is its quest for entrepreneurial, rather than bureaucratic, government. Housing or social-service vouchers, for example, can stimulate the private provision of low-income housing or psychological and social counseling.

Another feature is "empowerment"--the poor will make greater progress if they are allowed greater control over their own lives. In essence, empowerment entails a conservative acceptance of power-to-the-people radicalism and liberal acknowledgement of the power of markets and individual choice.

Welfare and family policy offer more striking examples of left-right convergence. Many liberal scholars now agree that the welfare state undermines work effort and fosters dependency rather than individual responsibility. Many conservatives now acknowledge that government has a role in assuring a decent standard of living for lower-income Americans.

Finally, the outlines of a new politics can be detected in the recent revival of "civic republicanism" or "communitarian" thinking, which seeks to counter the extreme individualism of both social liberals and economic conservatives with a new emphasis on civic virtue and reciprocal responsibility.

These developments should not be mistaken for a trend toward foggy moderation. The new politics is anathema both to orthodox liberals and conservatives and to the constellations of party interests that protect the status quo.

The emergence of a progressive tendency on both sides of the political spectrum will have a significant impact on the politics of the 1990s. Radical left-right alliances attacking big bureaucratic programs and special-interest handouts, whether for big business or for big labor, will form. And if Washington persists in viewing all political ideas through the old left-right prism, both parties will continue to lose political market share as Americans explore politics by other means.

Significant left-right differences remain, of course. Liberals are less likely to finger government failure as the cause of social problems, and more likely to point to economic and cultural factors that suggest new roles for public activism. Conservatives are still wary of Big Government, and cling to what liberals regard as a mystical faith in the market's ability to produce acceptable social outcomes.

But one feature of the new politics is that progressives from each side talk to each other, and are learning to understand and compromise. Their common denominator is a spirit of radical pragmatism, the will to experiment, to try new approaches and, if they fail, try again. That is what links Democrat Lawton Chiles' innovative work to revitalize Florida's public institutions to Republican Thomas G. Thompson's bold welfare reform experiments in Wisconsin.

The new politics, however, could prove to be a time bomb for the two major parties. President George Bush talks about empowerment, though he seems unable to use the term, and pats Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, on the back. But when Congress recently tore out virtually all the funding for Kemp's HOPE program, which would rehabilitate public housing and give tenants the chance to own their own homes, there wasn't a squeak of protest from the White House. The Republicans risk losing the possibility of realignment, and will alienate progressive conservatives like Kemp, if they fail to understand the new politics.

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