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In the campaign of ideas, bigger is better

When President Clinton said in his State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over," he wasn't kidding.

Big just isn't the White House style anymore. Little is the watchword. Instead of the sweeping ideas like health-care reform that dominated his early term, Clinton has turned to notions that can only be classified as, well, small. It's not that the ideas are bad. (It's hard to quibble with better meat inspection.) They just aren't substantial or presidential.

In most cases, they aren't even federal. They are issues that should be left to local governments, or to businesses, individuals and charities.

National elections should be about Big Ideas. So far, this one is about practically nothing. Part of the blame lies with Bob Dole's sleepy campaign, but I expect that Dole will get around to larger ideas sooner or later. Clinton's Little Ideas, on the other hand, seem part of a master strategy to dominate the news with a flood of inoffensive mini-proposals, announced with great gravity.

The ideas come so fast and furious that the press and the Dole camp can't keep up with them. But the ideas give the impression that Clinton is vigorous and youthful, that he "cares," that he's doing something. So each week, he offers another of his Little Ideas to the public, including:

The war on hooky: a $10 million program to battle truancy by handing out grants to schools across the country.

Cellular crime-fighting: free phones, provided by the industry at Clinton's urging, for neighborhood watch groups.

Time off for PTA: an expansion of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act that would grant workers up to 24 hours of unpaid leave time to attend family events like parent-teacher conferences.

Roof repairs: federal money to help local schools repair deteriorating buildings. (Funds would come from an auction of part of the broadcast spectrum _ money that's been "spent" over and over in other proposals.)

Plus: a plan to use software to track guns used in teen violence (first announced by the ATF three years ago), proposals for school uniforms and curfews, measures to discourage teenage smoking and church burning, etc., etc.

It's not unusual for Little Ideas to rule a presidential campaign. Candidates always maneuver to avoid issues that would risk alienating blocs of voters, and Big Ideas are inherently risky. Big Ideas are often complicated, they're not necessarily good sloganeering material and they confuse the press.

But Big Ideas can have lasting effects on our lives. Here are four. Some of them may seem smallish, but they all have big consequences:

Welfare reform: This may become law, with support from both Dole and Clinton (thus, defusing it as an issue). What's important is not just limiting benefits and requiring work _ an admission that good intentions can produce terrible results _ but devolving control back to the states.

If we can give welfare back to the states, Medicaid may be next. Then, perhaps, every program will be questioned with federalism in mind: Why should Californians pay for cops on the beat in Louisiana?

Missile defense: Whatever its cause, the crash of TWA Flight 800 has made us worry that we're vulnerable to terrorist bombs on planes. Far worse, we're vulnerable to missile attacks on our cities _ even though the vast majority of Americans don't know it. We have no protection against an enemy bombardment.

While many of Clinton's Little Ideas involve functions that are questionably national, there's no doubt about security: It's the No. 1 federal responsibility. While Clinton has effectively squelched a missile defense and muffled debate, Dole has yet to talk much about it. He should.

Medical savings accounts: MSAs are health insurance policies with large deductibles, usually paid for by employers. Workers who don't spend their deductible get to keep and invest it. Studies by the RAND Corp. indicate that MSAs may cut health costs, but, far more important, they'll mark the first step in many years away from more government control of health care _ and toward less.

Flat tax for the District of Columbia. More important than the national tax cuts that the growth wing of the GOP is trying to urge on Dole is the proposal, by D.C. Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, to institute a flat 15 percent federal tax for Washington residents _ plus a full exemption on the first $30,000 of income for married couples and no capital gains on profits earned on D.C. assets.

This sort of taxation could make D.C. another Hong Kong. It might even raise more tax revenues than the current system by increasing business activity and population, in the meantime revitalizing the city.

But saving the District isn't the main benefit. A flat tax would be a pilot program that could prove lower, simpler rates work. Politicians would demand the same for their states; it's the most efficient route to federal tax reform.

So there's no dearth of Big Ideas, only a dearth of candidates willing to engage them. It's a shame they'd rather declare war on hooky.

James K. Glassman writes regularly on financial affairs

for the Washington Post.

Special to the Washington Post