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Pushing Both Parties To the Center

New Ideas from 'New Democrats'

Bill Clinton arrived in office a self-proclaimed "New Democrat," promising to blend social and fiscal responsibility. Government, he preached, was not the answer, though still a very useful tool.

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His centrist version of Democratic politics has had a rough passage for four years. Heading into its fifth year, the weather is even more blustery, whipped by winds of scandal that threaten to engulf the administration.

Yet Clinton's ambitious political experiment deserves some scrutiny - with the ethical clouds, for purposes of analysis, temporarily pushed aside. Has the president succeeded in redirecting a declining Democratic Party, which seemed stuck in a New Deal-New Society time warp? Has he helped steer government toward the political center, which better reflects the instincts of most Americans?

The Democrats have always been an eclectic group, drawing adherents from various strata of society who shared a commitment to social and economic justice. The federal government, in their view, is the means of ensuring that justice.

What Clinton brings to his party is a different perception of how that tool should be used. He and his fellow founders of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the cradle of "New Democratic" thinking, saw that centralized, big-government programs were often wasteful, and sometimes pernicious. They advocated devolving power to state and local governments and trimming down the federal bureaucracy.

Clinton's boldest steps in this direction, particularly last year's welfare reform act, have been blasted by Democrats on the party's left. On the other hand, his first big try at reform, a national health-care overhaul, was criticized by Democrats of his own centrist stripe, who saw the plan as overly bureaucratic and statist.

Even through the fogs of fund-raising fiascos and Whitewater, the president will doubtless try to steer farther along his New Democrat course. He'll have help from the DLC and its associated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. The latter just put out a book, "Building the Bridge," which promotes "10 big ideas to transform America." Idea No. 1, boldly, is reform of "the current, unsustainable benefit structure" of Social Security. Included are the creation of "world-class public schools" and "strengthening families for the 21st century." It's a list hard to fault, and the means of implementation are unrelentingly '90s mainstream: market incentives, local empowerment, the elimination of waste.

The Clinton years will be remembered for many things, good and bad. But their greatest legacy could yet be a decisive, and productive, swing to the middle.

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Luring the GOP back to Main Street

Next month comes the formal announcement of an effort to "refocus the future of the Republican Party." The new Main Street Coalition, in keeping with its name, seeks to enlist "the middle" as it reaches out to "citizens who want a broad vision." And it begins with the backing of such national figures as Elliot Richardson and more than 20 members of Congress, ranging across the country from Amo Houghton (New York) to Jim Leach (Iowa) and Stephen Horn (California).

The coalition has been called a mirror image of the Democratic Leadership Council. Where that group nudges Democrats away from the narrow left toward the center, the coalition will nudge the GOP away from the narrow right toward the center. It warns: "There is reason to worry that our democratic process is being driven by edge philosophies which do not represent the feeling of the majority of Americans."

The Main Streeters say they want to avoid political labels. We can almost imagine a smile on the face of their forefather, no-nonsense John Quincy Adams. He moved from Federalist to Republican and wanted to be a "man of the whole country," not a partisan. His name is borne by the coalition's founding body, the John Quincy Adams Society, which brings together businesspeople and members of Congress to engage public policy issues.

After Andrew Jackson defeated Adams for reelection as president, Adams vigorously served for years in the House. Didn't it degrade the presidency, he was asked, to step down from that high office to Congress? No, he said in a celebrated reply, no one could be degraded by serving as a representative in Congress or, for that matter, as a town selectman.

Ah, they don't make 'em like that anymore. Or maybe they do. If the Main Streeters, too, represent the whole nation and find causes like Adams's diplomatic triumphs and early opposition to slavery.

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