The Politics of Social Policy
In 1994 the Foundation approved the formation of a working group of political scientists interested in probing what they perceived as growing citizen disenchantment with the nation's political system. Specifically they have been interested in studying how the nation's two major political parties have each attempted to create a new political coalition organized around different ideological responses to the belief that government was not meeting the needs of its citizens. The specific focus of their study has been the social policy agenda of the Clinton administration and the partisan struggles that have ensued as a Democratic President--the first in twelve years--and a Republican majority in Congress--the first in over forty years--have attempted to enact major policy reforms.
Under the leadership of Margaret Weir of the Brookings Institution, the Politics of Social Policy working group has met several times and undertaken a jointly authored book exploring the political processes shaping the intense social policy debate. The Clinton administration and the "new Democrats," on the one hand, have promoted a continuing federal role in the social realm, but redesigned to fit the changing needs and values of the body politic. Arguing that a strong federal social role is contrary to American traditions, the Republicans have pressed for a massive transfer of governmental power and resources to the states.
In the introductory chapter of The Social Divide: Political Parties and the Future of Activist Government, Weir traces the evolution of these partisan divisions, beginning with the administration's abortive effort to adopt a centerpiece program of national health insurance, followed by the ascendancy of Republican congressional majority wedded to curbing federal spending, and then the hammering together of a legislative compromise after Clinton's re-election in 1996. Unable to enact their transformative agendas, the parties adopted a "strategy of inoculation," Weir says, with Clinton embracing a balanced budget and welfare reform to dissociate himself from old-style Democratic liberalism. By accepting a rise in the minimum wage and modest health reforms, Republicans sought to ward off charges that they were mean-spirited and placed the interests of private business above those of ordinary Americans. Clearly, both parties compromised, says Weir, but the scope of the President's concessions cast a long shadow over the future possibilities of activist government.
Chapters of the book show how political conflict shaped the social policy agenda. John Ferejohn of Stanford University attributes the increased polarization in Congress to the replacement of southern Democrats with conservative Republicans and to an increasingly liberal and homogenized Democratic coalition in the House of Representatives. Lawrence Jabobs of the University of Minnesota and Robert Shapiro of Columbia University consider how the decline of the political parties has left the much of the electorate politically unanchored and vulnerable to partisan appeals. Paul Pierson of Harvard University examines how the deficit became the central political issue, strengthening the Republican argument for smaller government.
Mark Peterson of the University of Pittsburgh interprets the health care policy debate as a struggle for the allegiance of the middle class, while Cathie Jo Martin of Boston University describes how big business became an unreliable ally for Democrats in debates over Clinton's proposed health reform and Republican efforts to reform Medicare. Margaret Weir considers why issues of wages and jobs, a source of much public anxiety in the first part of the decade, failed to occupy a more central part of either party's agenda. Ann Lin of the University of Michigan deals with the "troubling success of national crime policy," describing it as an effort by the Clinton administration to distance itself from liberals who were considered soft on crime.
The book's final section examines efforts to reform policies directed at the poor and disadvantaged, a watershed issue dividing Democrats and Republicans. Kent Weaver of the Brookings Institution argues that Clinton set in motion comprehensive welfare reform, again with an eye toward appealing to the middle class and distancing himself from traditional Democrats. Linda Williams of the University of Maryland examines the politics of policies to promote racial equality, with Clinton playing a delicate balancing game and the Republicans in the 1996 elections approaching the issue with surprising caution. John Mollenkopf of the City University of New York argues that devolution to the states and time limits on welfare, restrictions on food stamps, and the general weakening of the social safety net will have a heavy impact on poor urban communities and city budgets. In her concluding chapter, Weir argues that even though the transformative agendas of both parties stalled, the underlying sharp partisan differences are sure to continue as each party struggles to exert greater control over the federal government.