Below the Beltway

In
a recent address to the Catholic Press Association, Bob Dole
sketched out a culturally conservative agenda on social issues. But when it
came to welfare, Dole, at one point, portrayed teenage mothers with rare
charity: "We are just beginning to recognize that perhaps half of the
fathers of [their] babies are grown men, 20 years or older. In other words, a
central feature of the plague of illegitimacy is older men preying on young
girls."

Of course, Dole and the Republicans haven't backed away from their
fundamental opposition to welfare as an entitlement. But this new bipartisan
rhetoric—Dole makes frequent use of the phrase "male sexual predator,"
just as Bill Clinton talks about teen mothers as victims of older men—suggests
one emerging area of convergence in welfare policy that views single mothers
with compassion rather than contempt.

One person who can take some credit is Kathleen Sylvester, vice
president for domestic policy at the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI),
a think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
Sylvester, formerly a journalist with National Public Radio and Governing
magazine, conducted extensive interviews with teen mothers, beginning in
1993. She detected a persistent pattern: The baby's father wasn't an adolescent
boy but a grown man. Often, too, the girls had been molested earlier in life by
older men, usually relatives or family friends. Further research revealed that
between three-fifths and two-thirds of all teen mothers had children whose
fathers were at least 20 years old.

Sylvester's work suggested two policy conclusions. If teen mothers were
frequently the victims of older men, then punishing them (or hoping to deter
pregnancies) by cutting off benefits made less sense. In addition, if adolescent
girls were victimized in the homes and neighborhoods where they were growing up,
getting young women out of an environment where "male predators" abuse
and exploit them should be a high priority, particularly when the mothers are in
their early to mid-teens.

Sylvester got herself quoted in the New York Times, Newsweek,
Time, and U.S. News and World Report, and she even appeared on
the Phil Donahue show. Last December, she achieved the policy promoter's dream:
an Oval Office meeting with President Clinton, whom she knew from their days as
undergraduates at Georgetown. The meeting encouraged a shift in the
administration's welfare plan, away from requiring teenage mothers to stay at
home to creating "second-chance homes," where they can get away from
abusive environments, learn parenting skills, and build a foundation for
independence. A few months later, Dole's Senate staff asked Sylvester for her
findings.



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While the idea of second-chance homes is not new, Sylvester's salesmanship
has helped push it to center stage. In addition to Clinton's support, it has
bipartisan backing from influential Democratic senators including Connecticut's
Joseph Lieberman, New York's Daniel Patrick Moynihan, North
Dakota's Kent Conrad, plus Republicans Dole and Phil Gramm. New
Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Iowa have all passed legislation to create
or study second-chance homes.

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Sylvester's
work shows that the New Democrats at PPI can blend useful social policy with
smart politics. But the debate over the minimum wage suggests they can be less
reliable guides to the politics of economic issues. In early 1995, when Robert
Reich
, Ted Kennedy, and Richard Gephardt began a serious
push for a higher minimum wage, the Clinton administration got some familiar
advice from the DLC's Washington operation. As columnist Morton Kondracke,
often an outlet for DLC views, explained in
Roll Call, "DLC officials think that, if Clinton calls for a
minimum-wage increase in the State of the Union—as White House aides
indicated he is inclined to do—it could wreak the same political damage as
his 1993 vow to veto any health care bill that did not provide universal
coverage." In another column Kondracke wrote that support for a wage hike
would "brand him [Clinton] as an 'old Democrat'"—the ultimate
insult for DLCers.

PPI's vice president for economic policy, Rob Shapiro, has spoken
and written frequently as a self-described "skeptic" on raising the
minimum wage. He prefers investing in job training and raising the earned income
tax credit for the working poor. (As Barry Bluestone and Teresa Ghilarducci
explained in "Feasible Antipoverty Policy,"
TAP, May-June 1996, the options are not mutually exclusive—they
reinforce one another.)

In fact, Clinton did support the minimum-wage increase in the 1995 State of
the Union, and backed the wage hike through Congress. No member of the White
House economic team opposed raising the minimum wage. In October 1993,
then-Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen—the most conservative voice
within Clinton's inner circle and generally a DLC ally—took two liberal
White House staffers aside and said, "I want you two young fellows to know
I've always supported the minimum wage, and I'm for raising it now."

Bentsen's political instincts proved better than the DLC's. The increase has
better than 70 percent popular support and shores up Clinton's image among
working-class Reagan Demo crats, the very group for which the DLC wants to
speak. And while the DLC's Washington staff was wary of the increase, its
chairman, Senator Joseph Lieberman, backed it.

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Clinton's
interest in three recent books—E.J. Dionne's
They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era,
Jacob Weisberg's In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of
Public Trust
, and James Carville's We're Right, They're Wrong—has
been well reported. But according to presidential adviser George
Stephanopoulos
, another book, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why
America Is Wracked by Culture Wars
by social historian Todd Gitlin,
was also influential when Clinton was preparing this year's State of the Union
address. Clinton even sent Gitlin a complimentary note after reading it. Gitlin,
who confirms the note, is somewhat ambivalent about the influence Stephanopoulos
attributes to his writing—a fact that may have something to do with the way
Clinton interpreted Gitlin's message.

In the book, Gitlin, a historian of the 1960s and an early president of
Students for a Democratic Society, calls on liberals and conservatives to stop
sparring over symbolic cultural issues in order to create political running room
for economic populism. These days, the White House version of cultural detente
includes such measures as school uniforms and curfews for teenagers. Gitlin says
he is agnostic about uniforms and curfews, but hopes the President will "get
tougher on economic issues, such as jobs, wages, and progressive taxation."

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One
other book that might intrigue the President is Bum Rap on America's Cities:
The Real Causes of Urban Decay
(Prentice-Hall, 1978). The little-known book
was written by presidential strategist Dick Morris, back when the
politically androgynous Morris was a policy advisor for social service
organizations in New York City. Now it reads like a time capsule from the urban
liberalism of the 1970s—a time when mayors like New York's John Lindsay
(who inspired the phrase "limousine liberal") called for massive
transfusions of cash for the cities and downplayed middle-class concerns on
social issues like crime and welfare.

In Bum Rap, Morris argues that the fiscal problems of northeastern
cities weren't caused by "permissiveness and liberal social generosity."
Instead, Morris fingers culprits ranging from defense policies favoring the
Sunbelt, to Medicaid mills and nursing homes that rip off social spending, and
lending institutions that redline the inner cities. In short, Bum Rap is
a book of arguments to use against conservatives, much like his rival James
Carville's recent paperback, We're Right, They're Wrong. Morris's
book is out of print, but the politically nimble Morris, who has advised
conservative Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, might
benefit from re-reading parts of it. In his recent work for Clinton, Morris has
shown he recognizes the power of populist economic issues like preserving
Medicare. Now, he could reach back 20 years and find some targets that are still
worth attacking: private profiteers who enrich themselves from programs designed
to benefit the poor.

The debate continues in the November-December issue of The American Prospect.



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