Good Times Allow U.S. to Tackle Its Woes--if Politicians Don't Fumble

Standing on State Street in front of the new Schnuck's supermarket, across the way from the ceremony where President Clinton and a crowd of dignitaries are opening a new Walgreens drugstore, Adam Gladney can see sprouts of hope in this long-suffering city.

More people, he says, are working; the streets feel safer; a shopping center--a rare luxury here--is under construction next to the Walgreens. Many of these streets still seem desolate, but with the economy booming all around, Gladney sees a chance to plant more seeds of renewal. "This is a time to start moving on stuff," insists the gregarious shoe store manager.

That's a message Washington ought to hear. Good times have given the country a chance to tackle entrenched problems--like the need to modernize Social Security and Medicare or the persistent poverty that Clinton spotlighted last week in communities from Appalachia to Los Angeles. But day by day, the danger is rising that Washington will let this chance slip past.

That risk seemed the subtext to Clinton's striking cross-country tour last week. Clinton's words were aimed mostly at communities that the economic boom of the 1990s has left behind. But his message may have been just as valuable for a community that has prematurely moved on--the political class in Washington already fixated on campaign 2000.

With his burst of activity, Clinton sent a simple and powerful message: There's still plenty of time for the administration and Congress to address problems that affect millions of Americans every day. "People hire us to work," Clinton said in an interview, "and expect us to work."

That would seem self-evident with the next election still 16 months away. But the capital these days resembles a sailor who has become hypnotized by the distant horizon. The press, the political professionals and even much of Congress are already engrossed in the next presidential race. Meanwhile, the administration and Congress have fallen back into grinding stalemate.

Some of this is inevitable: The accelerated 2000 primary calendar has forced the campaign to start early. But the futility in Washington mocks the frenzy on the campaign trail. The presidential candidates are brimming with ideas to reform everything from the tax code to the schools, But the problem in Washington isn't a shortage of good ideas; it's a shortage of tolerance for the bipartisan compromises that allow good ideas to become law. Unless the climate changes, the presidential pack may be running at a breakneck pace for the privilege of standing still if they win.

Maybe the next election will give one party sufficient control of the process to impose its agenda on the other. But don't bet on it. Americans have let one party control both Congress and the White House for only six of the past 31 years. And public opinion is so closely divided between the parties that even if one controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, its margin in Congress is unlikely to be large enough to support an ideological crusade.

That means the challenge after the election could well be the same as now: building coalitions for centrist reforms. And that means there is no reason to wait until January 2001 to start.

On some issues--such as gun control and late-term abortions--the parties are divided by disagreements that defy compromise. But in several areas, they could reach agreement--if they wanted to. On education, both are looking for means to encourage states to strengthen their systems of accountability for teachers, students and administrators. The swelling budget surplus estimates have given them more money to grease a potential deal on taxes and spending. And Clinton's proposals to inject more market competition in Medicare moves him toward centrists in both parties.

Then there's another category of potential agreements symbolized by the proposals Clinton touted last week to encourage more investment in depressed urban and rural areas. No one would pretend the tax credits and loan guarantees Clinton proposed could by themselves reverse decades of decay. But Clinton's efforts to steer more private investment into needy areas (through initiatives such as tougher enforcement of the community lending laws) have already demonstrated enough promise (in results such as rising minority homeownership) that this next step hardly seems an unacceptable risk.

Or, more precisely, it would not seem an unacceptable risk to a capital that recognized the value of trial and error in social policy. What's missing in Washington is not only a willingness to compromise--but a willingness to experiment. Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Great Society produced some great successes and some great failures, once lamented that the political world was not able to accept the latter as the price of the former. "I wish the public had seen the task of ending poverty the same way as they saw the task of getting to the moon," Johnson once said, "where they accepted mistakes as part of the scientific process."

Embracing that Edisonian tinkerer's spirit could do wonders for Washington today. The first step toward confronting problems such as poverty is to acknowledge that neither party knows exactly how to solve them. If the two sides embraced a policy of competitive experimentation, they could fund trials for each other's best ideas--like Clinton's new investment initiatives, or GOP proposals to support church-based programs that reconnect absent fathers with their families. Then they could see what worked, and carefully expand it.

Washington eventually needs to reach consensus on broader policy changes that could boost communities like East St. Louis--a hike in the minimum wage, for example, or a drive to insure working adults without health care. And some of those steps probably can't be taken until they've been argued out in a presidential campaign.

But in the meantime, both parties would benefit from finding ideas they could agree to test in the real world. Not incidentally, that would also benefit the people in places like State Street--who shouldn't have to wait until the next presidential election for Washington to support their fragile steps toward community renewal.


Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday.

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