The Children's Crusade
Forget the budget consensus. Now Clinton wants to keep Republicans off guard by being nice to kids
By J.F.O. McAllister
(TIME, August 25) -- One good thing about winning re-election: this year Bill Clinton didn't have to consult pollsters to choose his vacation spot. But when he returns next month from three weeks of golf and sun on Martha's Vineyard, the country may wonder if another election looms, because the White House will be dispensing a new dose of the same formula Clinton and his pollsters perfected in last year's campaign. Call it the Cult of the Child. From day care to children's health to keeping schools open all afternoon, the White House will be churning out new kid-focused proposals as fast as Gerber can make jars of mashed bananas.
Kids have already been an important political tool for Clinton, his path to the hearts of the suburban soccer moms who were crucial in 1996 and are likely to be again in 1998 and 2000. By carefully aiming new initiatives at the young--such as his campaign to curb youth (but not adult) smoking, and a provision in the budget bill to give health insurance to 5 million children of the working poor (but not their parents)--Clinton has made winners out of programs that Republicans would otherwise have skewered as Big Government. All year the White House has delighted in trotting out what one Democrat describes as "itsy-bitsy proposals for itsy-bitsy babies," including safety standards for car seats, a plan for controlling kids' access to Internet smut, and a revamped immunization program. Last week Clinton announced that drug companies would be required to test more medicines specifically for use by kids. "Children are not rugged individuals," he said. "They depend upon us to give them love and guidance, discipline and the benefit of good medical care."
Clinton aides see the child initiatives as offering several benefits for the President. They will perk up a fall agenda that is notably lacking in sex appeal, ranging from a projected battle over trade policy to a presidential trip to South America. Democrats are also casting about for issues that will differentiate them in the voters' minds from Republicans, following the bipartisan orgy of the balanced budget. "New programs for kids are a great way to unite the party," says a White House aide; even House minority leader Richard Gephardt, who denounced the balanced budget, is helping plan the kiddie offensive. Most important, Clinton's advisers think children's issues strike a special chord with Americans. "The fastest growing segment of the electorate is the one concerned about protecting children and helping parents be good parents," says Clinton pollster Mark Penn.
How will Clinton tap this trend? Last week he chewed over three major initiatives with advisers, which could be introduced at a child-care conference to be conducted by Hillary in October. The current $1 billion federal block grant to subsidize child care for low-income parents will be raised. Because uniform federal standards would never pass Congress, Clinton will probably propose an incentive system to improve day-care quality, such as giving states money to provide training. The most ambitious idea would supply funds to local districts for after-school programs aimed at older students as well as primary schoolers. This will be sold as a crime-fighting measure (more than two-thirds of juvenile crime occurs between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.), an aid to working parents and a way of honing the competitive edge of workers. A senior White House official is concerned that "we may have trouble with that," recalling how Republicans lampooned earlier efforts to fund after-school programs as "midnight basketball." But the idea polls extremely well, and some Republicans fear they have nothing good to counter it with.
"Nothing has been done in our party to take the offensive on child and education issues," laments Bob Dole's pollster Tony Fabrizio. "If we pick school choice and the Democrats pick teacher standards and after-school activities, we'll be going into a gunfight with a knife." And it's not nice to fight in front of the children.
--With reporting by James Carney and John F. Dickerson/Washington
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