As they toured Los Angeles streets reduced to rubble, President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton agreed to a surprising extent this week on the first principles to guide the reconstruction.
Bush and Clinton maintained that revitalizing cultural values in depressed neighborhoods is at least as important as crafting new government programs. Both said any new government initiatives should stress "empowering" residents through grass-roots economic development rather than dispensing aid from Washington. Both termed tougher law enforcement the prerequisite of any economic revival.
And yet for all their convergence, the President and his likely Democratic challenger offered a stark contrast on the most basic question: How great a role should government play in confronting the problems of poverty and urban decay?
Though Clinton departs from older Democratic thought in seeking to root his agenda in the idea of reciprocal responsibility between individuals and the government, he wants to do more, and spend more, than the President.
Throughout his presidency, Bush has stressed the limits of government's ability to solve social problems--and warned that federal efforts to improve conditions often make things worse. "The government's first duty is like that of the physician: Do no harm," the President told the National League of Cities in March.
For urban needs, Bush has proposed a "conservative empowerment" agenda that limits new spending and stresses such ideas as urban enterprise zones and greater incentives for homeownership among the poor--ideas he reiterated in his speech in Los Angeles on Friday. But after three years in office, Bush has made little progress toward implementing that program, and even some sympathetic observers question his commitment to it.
"Bush does not have the gut instinct or feeling for these ideas," said Stuart M. Butler, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "He is . . . supportive, but there isn't the adrenaline running."
Clinton has also embraced many of the ideas central to Bush's "empowerment agenda," including enterprise zones, tenant ownership and management of public housing, and welfare reform. While Bush portrays these ideas as a substitute for direct government action, Clinton views them as the foundation for renewed government action in economic development, health care, education, housing and job training--areas he charges that Bush and former President Ronald Reagan have starved for funds.
"Those (empowerment proposals) are good ideas," said Bruce Reed, Clinton's policy director. "But we also have to provide ways for people to join the middle class through education and training and creating jobs."
That contrast establishes the urban policy dynamic between the President and his likely challenger. Clinton rarely criticizes Bush's empowerment agenda--but he argues that such proposals by themselves are inadequate, and questions the President's commitment to them. "The thing that struck me . . . is that this speech could have been given three years ago," Clinton told CNN after the President's Friday address.
The White House appears unsure exactly how to contrast the President with Clinton on these questions, but may try to portray Clinton as too eager to create expensive new programs. Even during the Democratic primaries, Clinton has faced charges that he has never fully specified how he would pay for new initiatives.
As on many issues, it is unclear where businessman Ross Perot, who is contemplating an independent bid for the White House, fits in this debate. In an appearance on "Meet the Press" last weekend, he urged greater stress on education, family values, welfare reform and programs to encourage investment in the inner city. But Perot has also made his top priority reducing the federal budget deficit, and he offered few specifics in the interview.
Clinton and Bush have sounded such similar notes this week because both are basing their urban agendas on a critique of traditional social welfare programs developed in recent years by a cadre of thinkers ranging across the ideological spectrum from author and Clinton adviser David Osborne to James P. Pinkerton, the counselor to the Bush-Quayle reelection effort.
These analysts argue that social welfare and anti-poverty programs must be redesigned to stress personal responsibility, local control and greater choice through such mechanisms as allowing parents to pick the schools their children attend and providing the poor with housing vouchers as opposed to building public housing.
After much internal resistance, Administration advocates of that critique--led by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp--have convinced Bush to articulate some of their agenda. Among the key ideas the Administration has put forward are:
* Attracting investment to the inner city through tax breaks for companies that open plants in enterprise zones.
* Targeting tougher law enforcement and enhanced social services, such as job training, on depressed neighborhoods through so-called "weed and seed" programs.
* Allowing tenants in public housing to purchase their units as a means of increasing their stake in the community.
* Bringing competitive pressure to bear on schools through choice plans--including vouchers that would provide government aid for parents sending their children to private or parochial schools.
* Encouraging state welfare reforms aimed at encouraging mothers on relief to marry, and to avoid having additional children while on public assistance.
Bush has made only minimal headway on this agenda. Conservative critics such as Butler say that that is largely because the President has never given urban problems sustained attention. As one senior Administration official acknowledged, "the President has to show that while maybe he didn't care as much as he should have about these issues, he does now."
Congress has appropriated $361 million for tenant ownership of public housing, but that is less than half of what the Administration sought. The White House has not persuaded Congress to provide any funding for private school choice plans. Last month, Bush vetoed legislation that would have created enterprise zones because the bill also raised tax rates on the wealthy.
The Administration this week sent Congress legislation authorizing a major expansion of the "weed and seed" program, which has been confined to pilot projects. The Administration's major action on welfare reform has been to provide states such as Wisconsin federal approval to conduct their experiments.
Although Clinton agrees with the Administration on many of these proposals, he rejects significant components of Bush's empowerment agenda.
Clinton opposes including private schools in choice plans. And he is less enthusiastic than Bush about attempts to sanction welfare recipients in an attempt to mold their personal behavior. But, he has said he would allow states to experiment with such approaches--and he has offered a more specific work requirement than the Administration, proposing that all recipients be required to take public service jobs after two years on the rolls.
At the same time, Clinton has said that mandating work for welfare recipients will require the government to spend more on training, education and child care--while the Bush Administration has opposed legislation by Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) to move more welfare recipients into work by increasing funding on such programs.
As his view on training welfare recipients suggests, Clinton has built his domestic program around a vision of mutual obligation--with government working more aggressively to expand opportunity, and demanding that citizens exercise responsibility in taking advantage of it.
Beyond welfare reform, Clinton has also proposed to revive cities by:
* Expanding access to capital for minority small businesses through tougher enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act and providing government seed money for a national network of inner-city community development banks.
* Raising the rewards of work by expanding the earned income tax credit, which benefits the working poor, and indexing the minimum wage for inflation.
* Providing full funding for Head Start, and providing federal loans to encourage states to equalize spending between rich and poor school districts.
* Guaranteeing access to college education by allowing any students to borrow money and repay the government, either as a small percentage of their subsequent earnings or through national service as police officers, teachers or community service workers. These graduates would provide some of the manpower for Clinton's proposals to expand community policing and health care services.
* Enhancing job training efforts through apprenticeship programs for students not bound for college, and requiring all companies to either spend 1%-1.5% of their payroll on job training or pay into a federal account to fund such efforts.
* Using government partnerships with nonprofit and other local organizations to accelerate construction of low-income housing, finance infrastructure investments and deliver social services.
The Administration has not articulated positions on all of these issues. Bush has substantially increased Head Start funding, but not as much as Democrats want. The President has backed raising the tax credit for the working poor, but he vetoed a hike in the minimum wage two years ago before signing a smaller increase. One Republican familiar with White House thinking called Clinton's indexing plan "a really stupid idea."
Last month, Bush echoed Clinton's proposal to allow students to pay back loans as a percentage of their income over time, but Education Secretary Lamar Alexander expressed concerns that Clinton's national service program might be too expensive. The Administration has taken no position on Democratic-sponsored legislation in the House to foster the community development banks.