Unlikely duos find common ground on the issues
Pat Schroeder's feminist supporters were apoplectic. A liberal Democrat Pin Congress, an ally of the women's movement, she had lined up with-of all people-Phyllis Schlafly, Founding Mother of the New Right. Both want to help the family by doubling the federal tax exemption for dependents. The two women had never actually spoken, but no matter. Last week, when The New York Times ran pictures of them side by side, the angry calls poured in to Schroeder's office. "The reaction was: 'How can you do this to us?"' said Schroeder aide Andrea Camp.
Strange bedfellows are all the rage in Washington these days. Confounding shopworn ideological labels, unlikely duos are assembling-issue by issue-a new, practical-minded agenda for the '90s. Variously called "The New Paradigm" or the "New Mainstream," the agenda stresses targeted tax cuts and market incentives, rather than government bureaucracy, to reach traditional social goals like stable families, education, housing and jobs. "People in both parties just want to find ideas that work," says Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat whose supporters include William F. Buckley and Ralph Nader's raiders. "They want to break from ideology and solve problems."
The search for "ideas that work" is producing some startling political imagery. Mario Cuomo and Jesse Helms, who agree on next to nothing, were key supporters of a proposal to cut social-security taxes. Education vouchers, which would subsidize tuition at any public or private school, used to be seen as one of free-market economist Milton Friedman's wild ideas. Now it is backed by Lieberman and other "mainstream" Democrats. Liberal Hispanic leaders last week joined conservatives like Alan Simpson (their foe on immigration reform) to support a U.S.-Mexico freetrade agreement that unions despise. Black activists and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp support tenant-ownership plans in housing projects. A new law that funnels child-care money to the states in block grants, rather than through a federal agency, was shaped by the Senate team of Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy. "Privatization," contracting government services out to private companies, is a pet idea of White House policy aide James Pinkerton and a young Democratic contemporary, Andrew Cuomo, son of the New York governor.
The new alliances rise as old ideas in both political parties crumble. There is no money for new Big Government programs, and Democrats are loath to propose them. Republicans have occupied the White House for 17 of the last 21 years-too long to rely any longer on Ronald Reagan's brush-clearing theory of government. Bush administration officials know that they must produce results, or at least be seen as trying.
The odd pairings are driven by social and demographic changes as well. Schlafly's idea of the "traditional family" used to exclude families with women who worked. But the prevalence of two-income families-among fundamentalist Christians as much as any other group-forced her to reconsider, and broaden her view of tax policy. Schroeder, for her part, wants to ensure that working mothers are protected. "There's more common ground than either side had realized," said Heritage Foundation analyst Stuart Butler.
Washington's odd couples have yet to achieve results. The social-security tax cut was defeated in the Senate. New housing-project ownership schemes haven't won congressional approval, or more than symbolic backing from President Bush. Prospects for an increase in the dependent tax deduction are dicey. New paradigm ideas run smack into old paradigm obstacles: the government is broke and can't afford new tax cuts; bureaucracies and their interest group allies won't relinquish power. It may take a presidential campaign-a noisy crusade for New Thinking-to break the deadlock. Former senator Paul Tsongas touts marketplace routes to social equality, but his quest for the Democratic nomination may be too quixotic to get much attention. The "mainstream" Democratic Leadership Council has potential candidates, but none very venturesome. Some candidate, someday, may unite the disparate ideas into a coherent platform. "There's something coming down the track," says Schroeder aide Camp. "You can hear it if you put your ear to the ground." But for now, even a trainload of odd couples doesn't add up to a popular movement.
The social welfare lobby wanted centralized control of federally funded childcare centers. Conservatives wanted only tax breaks to families. Orrin Hatch (left) and Ted Kennedy compromised: grants to states to devise their own programs.
Liberals such as Mario Cuomo and conservatives like Jesse Helms propose cutting social-security payroll taxes to help the middle class. But centrists say the deficit-ridden government needs the money, and that argument so far is winning.
Preserving the traditional family has become a bipartisan cause. Liberal Pat Schroeder (left) and conservative Phyllis Schlafly want to help families by doubling the tax exemption for dependent children. Two-income families are now 'traditional'