Down on the Downtrodden

Newt Gingrich sets off a race to cut government spending for the poor, but he may be misreading America's mood

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Taken together, the numbers suggest that Americans are of two minds. Though still attached to the idea that the poor can and should be helped, they are open to urgings from the right that the effort is pointless or misguided. The air these days is full of that kind of talk, and not just in Washington. On the best-seller list, The Bell Curve argues that government should quit much of the antipoverty business because the poor are doomed by their mostly hereditary low IQs. Now that California voters have approved Proposition 187, which would deny schooling and medical care to illegal immigrants and their children, similar proposals are being promoted in Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas.

"The fact that government is no longer going to be so generous with taxpayers' money may be Scrooge-like, but it strikes me as rather responsible behavior," says Republican strategist William Kristol. "For too many years, some liberals have felt they were doing good by generously spending taxpayers' money. Now Americans, want to take a much harder look at what really does good and what does harm."

To a point, most people would agree with him. There's good reason to ask whether the welfare system has contributed to the burgeoning problem of children without fathers. "The Republicans are saying that we have a helluva problem, and we do," says New York Senator Daniel Moynihan, a Democrat. And at a time when the yearly number of immigrants, both legal and illegal, tops 1 million, it's not xenophobic to wonder how large an influx the nation can reasonably accommodate. Whatever the slender merits of California's Proposition 187, desperate measures are not surprising from a state that each year must cope with a third of the nation's new arrivals. The last time the U.S. faced a comparable flood, from 1901 to 1910, it set off years of jingoistic reaction against the newcomers -- Italians, Jews and other East Europeans -- until Washington tightened quotas in the 1920s and gave the nation time to absorb the influx.

A prime danger for the Republicans, however, is in the easy passage from debate to demagoguery. Political discourse these days has a saw-toothed edge. When politicians don't mind sounding like radio talk- show hosts, the distinction between a search for solutions and a hunt for scapegoats gets lost in a blizzard of invective. An even more serious problem for Congress is whether the most radical G.O.P. proposals are really in keeping with what voters wanted. Democrats came to Washington two years ago claiming a mandate to remake health care, only to discover that most people didn't want it remade nearly so thoroughly as the Clinton Administration proposed to do. The same fate could befall Republicans ready to whip the underdog.

It's a fate they aren't afraid to test. Giddy with the momentum of their Election Day victories, House Republicans are already venturing beyond the welfare-reform plan outlined in their contract, which is itself a blunt instrument. Like the White House reform bill that was introduced earlier this year, the G.O.P. plan would deny benefits after two years. Unlike Clinton's plan, however, it would not provide jobs for those who can't find them. In a far more radical move, Republicans are also seeking to abolish more than 100 federal programs and replace them with grants to states, which would be free to do with them what they pleased, even if that meant not much.

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