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Families need traditional solutions

The argument in the Democratic Party is getting serious. President Clinton is in the middle, and articulate voices are beckoning him in different directions.

The president's first budget in 1995 was a plea to maintain the governmental status quo. It disappointed those who saw him as a New Democrat and threatened to turn pro-change independents into Republicans.

His second budget, delivered just two weeks ago, conceded that landmark Democratic programs like Medicare and Medicaid_and much more of the existing Washington bureaucracy_would have to be scaled back, just as the Republicans have been arguing. It repositioned him with the Ross Perot followers, but it infuriated the liberals who dominate his party's caucuses on Capitol Hill.

The full extent of the debate was clarified last week in provocative statements from the right and left of the party.

The New Democrat, the magazine of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), weighed in with two pieces arguing that Clinton and the Democrats must change or die. Michael Rothschild, a San Francisco futurist, set forth the proposition that the microchip revolution is ushering in a new era of abundance, "vanquishing scarcity" to the dustbin of history. In this new era, "the widespread rise in living standards will make appeals to class warfare sound increasingly absurd."

The Democrats, he suggests, probably are too rigid to abandon their "machine-age thinking," so they go on defending "legions of bureaucrats and politicians manipulating the levers of taxes, subsidies and regulations in the central control room."

Al From, the DLC's president, in a companion article, does not embrace all of Rothschild's utopian economic vision. But he makes the case that for most of his presidency, Clinton has made a fatal error by throwing in with the congressional "Industrial Age" dinosaurs and letting himself be "defined by the very forces in the party that he came to Washington to change."

From's article was written before Clinton switched horses in the budget battle and he now applauds the latest twist in White House strategy. But he wants more change on welfare, tax and social policy and urges Clinton to "take on his party's base."

The other side of the case was argued by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in a speech to the National Baptist Convention in San Diego last week. The picture he drew for them was a vivid contrast to that of Rothschild and From.

Rothschild contended that "other than the poorest 20 percent of Americans whose illiteracy prevents their participation in the Knowledge Age, everyone senses the promise of the new economy. Non-unionized but highly skilled and well-paid, the sons and daughters of 1960s shop stewards are debugging local area networks and reprogramming voice mail systems. Arguments that had resonance for their parents strike them as quaint, if not absurd."

Reich, by contrast, pictured an America where "millions of men and women are struggling to stay afloat." It was not the welfare population he was describing but working families who "sit at the kitchen table at night, figuring out how to pay this month's bills. They pray their kids don't get sick, because the doctor bills are getting more expensive each year. They worry about taking a walk after dinner, because the neighborhood's no longer safe."

They are not in the bottom one-fifth of the population but they are losers in a process that Reich said has made this "the most economically stratified society in the industrialized world."

To reduce "this relentlessly widening gap" which he said "is this country's most virulent threat to family values," Reich advocates remedies which sound very traditional. He wants to expand Head Start, protect the earned income tax credit, save affirmative action, raise the minimum wage, build welfare reform around improved access to child care and make job training available to everyone who experiences the dislocations that are the inevitable byproduct of a changing economy.

If the Democratic Party abandons those people and the programs they need, Reich argues, it abandons its reason for being.

The debate is just beginning, and Bill Clinton is being tugged this way and that. The one thing I know is that the America Reich describes is a lot closer to the one I see in my travels and in my reporting than the one Rothschild paints.

Washington Post Writers Group