… there were two issues that towered above the rest in Morris’s assaying of public opinion: welfare and crime. In the 1992 campaign, Clinton had pledged to “end welfare as we know it.” In 1993, Gore had urged Clinton to declare war on welfare as part of the first 100 days and had implored the president to let him lead the charge. After all, Gore argued, he was one of the few Democratic senators to have supported a welfare-to-work law narrowly approved in 1988, forcing states to require parents getting welfare checks to work at least 16 hours per week in unpaid jobs. But Hillary thought an attack on welfare would divert energy from her health care package, and Gore lost the battle.
By 1995 the welfare rolls were shrinking, from a peak of 18 million in the recession of 1991 to about 12.8 million. Defenders of the system in Clinton’s cabinet, Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Donna Shalala of Heath and Human Services, argued that the total budget for Aid to Families with Dependent Children was a tiny fraction of the federal budget; indeed, it was only 14 percent of the amount devoted to Medicare, a middle-class entitlement. The real problem, they argued, was lack of training for the chronically underemployed and unemployed.
Reflexively hostile to welfare and fortified by Morris’s polls, Clinton pressed ahead. The administration began granting waivers to states to implement their own onslaughts on welfare, feature “workfare” requirements, time limits and “family caps”, a punishment for women who dared to have more than the approved number of children the government would help support. Through 1995 and early in 1996 the Republicans had passed and sent to Clinton two bills to dismantle the federal welfare system. He vetoed both, but in his veto messages he stressed that he agreed with much of their content in principle. Peter Edelman, a high level official at HHS, described this as “the squeeze play”, whereby Clinton would reap approval from Democratic New Dealers for standing up for poor kids while at the same time signaling that in the long run he’d throw the mothers of those kids off the rolls altogether.
As they approached the Democratic convention in the summer of 1996, Clinton was floating on Morris’s magic carpet. Assisted by staggering blunders by Gingrich and a lackluster opponent in Bob Dole, Clinton was ahead by no less than 27 percent in the polls. The Republicans were eager to wrap up their legislative work before the conventions in July and August. They pushed through a welfare bill arguably worse than the ones Clinton had vetoed previously. Many Democrats on the Hill believed that Clinton would veto this bill too. But Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York had more sensitive political antennae. He warned, “I’ve heard that the leaders of the cabinet recommended a veto but that the president remains under the sway of his pollsters.”
On July 30, 1996, Clinton mustered his cabinet to hear arguments on whether or not he should sign the Republicans’ bill. One by one his advisers said he should not. No’s from people like Shalala and Reich came as no surprise. But similarly disapproving were not only Leon Panetta but Laura Tyson, his chief economic adviser, Henry Cisneros of HUD and even Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who said that too many people would be harmed by the bill and that it show an act of political courage to veto it.
Not trusting Shalala’s department to produce objective assessments of the consequences of the bill, the White House staff had commissioned a survey from the Urban Institute, a DC think tank. The numbers were dire. The bill would push 2.6 million people further into poverty–1.1 million of them children. In all, the Institute predicted that 11 million families would lose income. That was the best-case scenario. In the event of a recession (which would come in 2001), the numbers would be far, far worse. In that fateful cabinet meeting Rubin invoked this study, and the numbers seemed to find their mark with Clinton, while Gore remained mute.
The meeting came to an end and Clinton, Panetta and Gore headed for the Oval Office for a private session. All accounts agree that, first, Panetta again made the case for a veto, laying particular emphasis on an appalling provision in the bill that would deny legal immigrants federal assistance, such as food stamps. Finally Gore broke his silence and urged Clinton to sign.
Clinton, Morris and Gore prepared a press statement, delivered by the president later that same day. Clinton admitted that the bill contained “serious flaws” but went on to say, “This is the best chance we will have in a long time to complete the work of ending welfare as we know it.”