Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


James Skillen


March 18, 1996

What should have been a hot debate between the Republican candidates hardly got started and with Lamar Alexander's withdrawal may vanish entirely. That vital debate is how to reconstruct the role of government within American society. The economic and social issues that have filled the airwaves are important, to be sure. Yet with the framework of society in question and in flux, no one who aspires to the presidency should be allowed to sidestep this larger debate.

The dominant image of Alexander's campaign was his "just folks" plaid shirt gimmick and his promise to cut down political insiders. But he also pressed for a more radical departure from conventional politics, urging an end to the fixation on the amount of government as cause or remedy of our nation's ills.

What we need, he said, is a "new understanding of the respective roles of citizens, communities, and government." Washington must shrink, but at the same time citizens must start demanding more of themselves, not only as individuals but as members of families, schools, neighborhoods, churches, and synagogues.

So he pushed for a "GI Bill for Kids" to provide school-choice scholarships to poorer families. He advocated a charitable tax credit, enabling taxpayers to send $500 to their favorite charity instead of the IRS. He said he would transfer all federal welfare funds to local foundations for distribution to local faith-based and secular anti-poverty groups.

Here were provocative ideas demanding debate. As Alexander said, the Republican Revolution can't be just a crusade to cut the feds off at the knees. To be successful—and effective—it must offer ways to "make it easier" for citizens to rebuild atrophied social institutions and to "put those institutions to work."

His vision outstripped the details. After kicking the feds out of education, just who is supposed to run the new GI Bill? What's the magic in entrusting public authority and resources to new charity foundations? We already elect, appoint, and hire people to carry out the public interest in this matter: we call the mechanism "government." And if all federal welfare funds go to local foundations, what will taxpayers redirect through the charity tax credit?

Innovative ways to strengthen families, neighborhoods, schools, and social ministries have been launched in Congress by Senator Dan Coats (the Project for American Renewal), Senator John Ashcroft (the Charitable Choice provision for human services), and now Representatives J. C. Watts and Jim Talent (the Community Renewal Project). These are detailed proposals and not just good ideas, and they begin to redesign government's relations with civil society. Alexander, by contrast, didn't get much beyond new rhetoric.

Still, he inserted the issue of reviving social institutions right in the middle of the contest for the presidential nomination, just where it should be. We've all learned that government is no substitute for a healthy civil society. Now we need to clarify government's proper and necessary tasks to enable the variegated institutions of social life to flourish.

So far Dole has played hooky from this crucial debate and Bill Clinton hasn't gotten much beyond using the majesty of the presidency to jaw public schools about uniforms. We don't have to settle for this. Members of Congress, state and local government officials, leaders of faith-based service organizations, school principals, and church members should forge ahead with needed reforms in their own spheres. And together as citizens we should put heat on leadership wannabees who are AWOL from the debate.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Jusice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”