"Is it worth it?
"Can you do anything?
"Can you make the country better?"
Sen. Warren B. Rudman asked himself these questions March 12 in a despairing speech about the "economic disaster" caused by runaway federal deficits. Twelve days later he provided his answer. It was no and no and no. This tough New Hampshire Republican announced he would retire, hale and hearty at 61, and it is difficult to think of a more somber commentary on politics in America.
Mr. Rudman pondered in that March 12 soliloquy why it was that with the deficit running at a record $400 billion, the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress could contemplate budget proposals adding even a penny to a national debt rapidly nearing $4 trillion.
"I think I have the answer," he said. "I think I have finally figured it out after 11 years. . . We are afraid to level with the American people because they have been lied to for so long." Presidents and lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, he said, have failed to deal with a debt problem that will cripple the economy and give foreign governments the power to "dictate" the terms and conditions on which they will finance American profligacy.
Mr. Rudman pushed the button that makes politicians cower: It is fear of the old folks, the Gray Power lobby. Although the 65-plus group is the most affluent cohort in the population, although golden agers get an average of $10,000 in benefits from the government compared to only $4,000 for babies and young children (the poorest cohort), although entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid already account for half of all government spending and are rising at 8.1 percent a year, the Washington establishment lacks the guts to bring this spending under control.
In his retirement statement, Mr. Rudman added: "Until we means-test entitlement programs . . until we do something about runaway health care costs, particularly Medicare and Medicaid, until we do something serious about means-testing upper-income, middle class Americans who are retired and can afford to pay their fair share. . . this country is destined for third-class status."
The senator is best known as co-author of the Gramm-Rudman plan for holding down deficits. It failed primarily because Congress would not put caps on entitlements, the same reason the 1990 budget agreement also is fatally flawed.
America can ill-afford to lose such a legislator -- a fellow who voted against both the administration and Democratic budget plans because they were based on "gimmicks." Can we dare to hope that Warren Rudman's retirement will ring some bells?