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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96 | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

100 Years After Democrats Redefined Government, a Revision Is in Order

August 26, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

CHICAGO — Comparisons between the Democratic National Convention that opens today and the tear-gas-scented chaos here in 1968 have already been droning on longer than a Jerry Garcia guitar solo. But the real bookend for this week's gathering is the historic Democratic convention that convened in Chicago's Exhibition Hall 100 years ago last month.

The Chicago convention of 1896 laid the intellectual cornerstone for the philosophy that guided the Democratic Party through most of the 20th century. Up until 1896, the Democrats had been the small-government party; from Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson on, 19th-century Democrats viewed an active government as a means by which the rich carved out special favors at the expense of everyone else.

But in 1896, William Jennings Bryan, the party's presidential nominee, set the Democrats on a new course. Jackson and Jefferson saw small government as a means of protecting average families. Bryan (drawing heavily from the insurgent Populist Party) recognized that in the industrial era, activist government provided the only means for ordinary people to defend their interests against the economic power concentrating in trusts and corporations.

In three tries, Bryan never won the White House. But he provided the foundation for the defining Democratic project of the 20th century--expanding the federal government to manage the economy, weave a social safety net and regulate business--goals pursued under Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

As the Democrats gather here this week, the vision that animated all of those men--of an expanding central government assuming ever greater responsibilities--has broken down, the victim of declining public faith in Washington, stagnant wages that have sharpened resistance to taxes, and the sheer incapacity of centralized bureaucracies to produce effective solutions in the emerging Information Age.

Now, 100 years after Bryan wrested the party into the 20th century with his electrifying "Cross of Gold" speech, it has fallen to Bill Clinton to begin defining a politically sustainable role for government in the next century.

Though his tumultuous first two years frequently obscured the message, Clinton's original campaign agenda always assumed a collapse of public faith in activist government. His goal in 1992 was to rebuild support among swing voters for an assertive government by offering new bargains. He would revitalize government but "reinvent" it; spend more on "public investments" but cut the budget deficit in half; offer the poor more job training and child care, but then demand personal responsibility and work.

Clinton's intricate balancing act collapsed almost as soon as he took office. In his own party, liberals resisted the reforms, while conservatives fought the expansions of government. Clinton himself leaned too heavily toward the side of enlarging government--trying to lurch the health care system under Washington's wing. Those mistakes fueled the GOP landslide in 1994.

But then the Gingrich Republicans leaned too far toward shrinking government--and provided Clinton a second opportunity to define a defensible role for Washington. Over the past year, he's gone a long way toward doing so--though at the cost of conceding much more ground to the conservative vision than he originally intended.

Though his rhetoric hasn't changed much, Clinton II has significantly shifted his emphasis from revitalizing toward reinventing and even retrenching government.

The most important change has been in raising the priority on balancing the budget. In 1992, Clinton insisted the nation faced two deficits--one in the federal budget, one in public investment. But now, he has committed himself to a balanced-budget plan that allows even his most favored investments--like Head Start and national service--to grow no faster than inflation.

Clinton now is also much more leery of demanding direct government action--such as mandates or spending programs--to meet his goals. In 1992, he proposed requiring all employers to spend 1.5% of their payroll training their workers; now he's proposed vouchers and tax credits to help workers train themselves. This week, Clinton is expected to propose tax credits for businesses that provide jobs to people now on welfare--a far cry from the massive public jobs program he once backed.

Though he successfully resisted GOP efforts to block-grant Medicaid and food stamps, Clinton's signature on the welfare bill marked a major concession to the Republican drive to move power outside of Washington. And he has been converted to the joy of baby steps: Whereas he once sought to remake the entire health care system in a single bound, last week he signed legislation merely making it easier for workers to carry their insurance from job to job.

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