One week ago tonight, a popular president asked the American people to tell their senators and representatives that they support the bipartisan budget agreement he had painfully worked out with the Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress. In making his first Oval Office appeal of this nature, George Bush told his audience "now is the time for you to have a real impact."
In accordance with presidential instruction, Americans did let their legislators know their reaction to a plan that would raise taxes, cut spending and impose new costs on Medicare participants, all in the name of curbing runaway deficits. Their answer was NO. As calls poured into the offices of incumbents facing re-election next month, the bipartisan budget plan crumbled.
While Washington scrambles to find an alternative, this is a moment to ponder why the American people responded this way. Surely, it was not because they are pleased with government paralysis and the shutdown of federal services. Surely, it was not because the U.S. public wanted their country made a laughingstock.
Rather, it has to do with the way Americans have been conditioned to think about the federal government. Jimmy Carter came to the White House saying "government can't solve our problems." And after he proved this point to voters who retired him, Ronald Reagan took over, chanting that "government is the problem."
Under Mr. Reagan, tax cuts became an act of easy patriotism. But because Mr. Reagan was also building up the military establishment, he needed money. So he borrowed it in huge quantities, doubling and tripling the federal debt.
All this represented a shift of wealth, to the very rich in America and to affluent foreigners. The losers were not only the poor (who always lose) but working-class and middle-class Americans who found their incomes stagnating or in decline.
While much of the above was due to Republican initiative, Democrats were busily telling elderly Americans they were getting a raw deal. In fact, the elderly were the most affluent age-group in the population. They receive $11 in federal largess, according to one estimate, for every dollar going to children, the poorest cohort in the population.
Against this background, rebellion against the bipartisan budget package makes sense, if not good sense. Americans taught to hate taxes and stretched to make ends meet were being asked to ante up by a president who won office pledging "No New Taxes." At the same time, old folks coddled and catered to by Democrats were told their Medicare costs would have to go up.
So the American people said NO. There was logic in their verdict, given what has gone before. But when the final details of an alternative budget plan are on the table, the public will learn that their cry of frustration has accomplished little.