Tough Love From The Dems

For Democrats seeking the presidency, here's the easy part: declare that the '80s are over and pledge allegiance to the middle class and its values. Greed is out, and so are the poor who won't help themselves. The latest Zeitgeist bulletin comes from Lawrence Kasdan, who made "The Big Chill." In his new film, "Grand Canyon," a Yuppie couple finds fulfillment by adopting an abandoned infant and by befriending a proud, self-reliant black man and seeing to it that he gets married. "The '80s were about 'every man for himself'," says Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. "The '90s are about 'we're all in this together'."

Agreed. But the hard part for Democrats is figuring out what government can do to save the middle class and nurture families and communities. Republicans have honored the middle class-and won its votes-by branding government as the enemy of "traditional" family values. In presidential campaigns they depict Washington as a conspiracy to deaden faith, charity and individual initiative. Democrats, who believe in the redeeming power of government, need to "reinvent" it, Clinton says, and give it a new moral role that the middle class will see as its own.

That new role goes by various names: New Paradigm, New Choice or, more clunkily, New Communitarianism. Clinton has cornered attention (unless and until New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gets into the race) by offering his own carefully crafted version, which he calls a New Covenant. The essence is a kind of governmental "tough love," aiming to empower people to climb the economic ladder on their own. Proponents say that Washington should promote hard work, thrift, social responsibility and strong families through incentives and rewards-not by setting up the federal government as the last-resort parent, employer, social worker or sugar daddy.

To promote responsible parents, Clinton proposes tough new "deadbeat dad" laws to force the payment of child support, and extended leave for new mothers and fathers. To promote home ownership, he supports Jack Kemp's idea of allowing public-housing tenants to buy their apartments. To foster civic duty, he offers a National Service Corps. He would make college loans universally available-but in exchange for a promise to perform two or three years of public service or to pay the money back at income-tax time. To promote self-reliance among the poor, Clinton would offer welfare to able-bodied recipients for no more than two years and only if they agreed to receive training in parenting and job skills. "Liberalism went too far by focusing exclusively on rights," says Elaine Kamarck, an analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute. "The essence of a community is that you have responsibilities, not just rights."

Clinton and his tough-love-from-government agenda are drawing the ultimate front-runner's tribute: he and it are coming under attack. Last week Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska challenged Clinton's national-service plan, calling it a vehicle for "adulterating the purity of service with a bribe." Kerrey, who offers a detailed national health-care plan, criticized Clinton's lack of one. Kerrey argues that childhood good health is the prerequisite to learning or job success-and the most urgent need of the middle class. Aides to Cuomo questioned Clinton's focus on welfare reform-a tiny portion of the federal budget-as the prelude to what one called a "rhetorical war on the poor."

Some aspects of the New Covenant aren't new-or so tough-minded. For one, the pet proposals aren't cheap. "National service" alone would cost billions. Clinton ridicules candidates who only propose "new money for old programs," yet he, too, insists on more money for "old programs" like Head Start. And at times, the New Covenant looks more like an old-fashioned payoff to the middle class than an attempt to enshrine its values. Like several other Democratic candidates, Clinton offers a "middle-class tax cut" in the form of an increased child-care deduction. "National service" itself would become just another costly entitlement program if most students opt to pay back the loans rather than work in the community. The rich (they're also part of the "community") get off relatively unscathed. Clinton wants to take away CEOs' golden parachutes and proposes a slight increase in the taxes of those in the top 1 percent of income. But he doesn't dare suggest that wealthy social-security recipients forgo their benefits. Here he honors a less lofty, but just as hardy, middle-class tradition: to take as much as the government will give you.

Still, Clinton's New Covenant and other kindred theories of civic responsibility are worthy contributions. To a nation beset by a sense of social breakdown, these ideas offer an uplifting message of community and public morals. To the Democrats they offer something else: a way to reclaim some pride in being the "party of government."