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.

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.

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."

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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