In stumping the nation this week to bring jobs and hope to impoverished regions, President Clinton has mixed a dash of liberalism's old War on Poverty with a pinch of conservatism's laissez-faire philosophy, yielding his latest recipe for centrist solutions to society's challenges.
At all six stops on his "New Markets" tour, which ended today with visits to job-training programs in this city's Watts and South Central neighborhoods, Clinton has flanked himself with corporate titans and staunch social liberals. His message: Hard-pressed areas need private investments to recover economically, but corporations won't spend their money there without increased government incentives, such as tax credits and loan guarantees.
The president calls it a classic example of the "Third Way" approach. The touchstone of "New Democrats," it holds that neither solidly liberal nor solidly conservative strategies will work, but a politically massaged blend of the two can.
Not surprisingly, some critics from the left and right deride the Third Way as wishy-washy compromise. Clinton, however, has ridden the philosophy from the Arkansas statehouse to the White House, convincing millions of voters that the smartest path lies somewhere between Ronald Reagan's tax breaks for the wealthy and Lyndon B. Johnson's government-driven Great Society.
The president summarized his thoughts in a speech Tuesday in economically depressed East St. Louis, Ill., at the midpoint of his four-day tour. In the 1992 campaign, he began, "I said that we ought to have a new role for government, that government couldn't solve all the problems, but walking away from them did not work very well, either. . . . In the inner cities and the rural areas of our country, lines have divided those who worked hard [but] had no money, and those who had plenty of money but didn't believe it could be very well spent in the inner city or in rural areas."
He underscored his message today in a round-table discussion on youth training at Southwest College in Los Angeles. Those sharing the stage included the chief executives of United Parcel Service Inc. and Toyota Motor Sales USA as well as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), an outspoken liberal. It was typical of the entourages Clinton brought to Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and the other stops on his tour.
Every event featured announcements of government incentives and corporate pledges meant to create jobs, improve housing, stimulate investment or boost employee training. Today's announcements included $250 million in Labor Department grants for the "Youth Opportunities" program, which targets low-income, out-of-school youths for job training. Also, Lucent Technologies and other corporations pledged $8 million to create "information technology academies" to provide computer training that could help such youths launch careers.
Many advocates for the poor have saluted Clinton's trip, even if they privately complain that it has come late in his administration. Some conservatives, meanwhile, say that pumping more money into deeply depressed areas -- even if it is both public and private funds -- won't overcome entrenched behavioral patterns that tie people to poverty.
"The general rule in the United States is that people move to economic success, economic success doesn't move to them," said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. Pouring investments into the Mississippi Delta, he said, will not dramatically increase jobs there because "that's not a good industrial area, it's a good cotton area" -- and cotton no longer requires many workers.
Even though Congress and Clinton have reduced welfare benefits, Rector said, the government continues to "reward non-work and non-marriage." Until that changes, he said, high rates of joblessness, crime and illegitimacy will prevail in the areas Clinton visited this week.
But the more liberal Joint Center for Political and Economic Study praises Clinton's approach on poverty. "I think the general idea is certainly a useful combination of public and private partnership," said Margaret Simms, the center's vice president for economic research. She added, however, that declaring a depressed area as an "empowerment zone" can backfire if businesses need to expand and relocate to suburban areas for transportation purposes. Such firms would lose their tax benefits, she said, even though research shows they still would hire mostly minority employees.
Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council and a champion of Third Way thinking, joined Clinton for most of this week's tour. He said the "New Markets" program "isn't a government solution."
"It's a way to use government resources effectively to leverage capital investment in these markets that have been left behind," From said.
Clinton summed up his thinking in an interview with CNBC during Tuesday's stop in Clarksdale, Miss. "This is a classic example, this approach to new markets, of the New Democratic or Third Way philosophy that I articulated back in 1991 and 1992," he said. "That is, government's role is to create the conditions for success, give people the tools they need to succeed and then, in effect, empower people to make the most of it."
In an interview published last Friday in the Los Angeles Times, Clinton suggested that Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- the leading GOP candidate for president -- is copying Clinton-Gore administration policies, especially in Third Way areas.
He said Bush's campaign is "very flattering in a way because it replicates the rhetoric" that Clinton has used in emphasizing themes such as linking opportunity and responsibility. He said Bush's "compassionate conservatism" might be a ruse to allow congressional Republicans to pursue a more conservative agenda if Bush gets elected in November 2000.
Asked whether Bush's lead in the polls over Vice President Gore indicates a public desire for change, the president said: "I think there is a constant desire for change. But I think what you will see by next year is that the vice president will be the candidate of change. People will have to decide if they want the change going on [now]."