This Land Unsatisfied by Little Ways

GEORGE F. WILL

January 21, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Democrats have had their routs and revels, Republicans have had their ration of gall and wormwood, and now Democrats confront the problem of Republican impotence. It is said that opponents are useful because they allow us to believe that if they were absent we would be able to realize our ideals. Congressional Republicans are too few to foil President Clinton's plans, so he needs excuses for the country's coming disappointments, and his.

Actually, the country is more immunized against disappointments than he is. He is of the generation that got permanently sun-struck by staring into the glare of the Kennedy glamour, or what then seemed glamorous. He hopes he can rekindle the splendor, such as it was. He won't, not primarily because of any defect on his part, but because of the maturation of Americans.

The most important political fact of the 32 years since Kennedy came to the presidency is the collapse of the prestige of government. That prestige peaked around 1965, when a ''great'' society -- merely ''good'' would not suffice -- was going to be legislated.

Government in its hubris believed that macroeconomic sophistication had given it the ability to ''manage'' the economy. Henceforth, the political problem would be to allocate equitably the vast revenues government would receive. Nowadays government looks to most Americans like an overbearing and overreaching underachiever that is suspect regarding both its competence and motives.

The vocational interests of politicians, and the emotional needs of the media (which feel important in proportion to the importance of what they are covering), explain a thought that recurs every four years. The thought is that the most recent presidential election was especially momentous. But the 1992 election was not, for three reasons.

First, the nation is more secure from foreign threats than it has been in 216 years. Second, because of the deficit, and the electorate's taxaphobia (related to the government's diminished prestige), and the power of interest groups over career politicians, the federal government has little latitude for action. In fact, less latitude than at any time since it completely slipped the leash of constitutional restraints (once upon a time there was a doctrine of enumerated powers) early in this century.

Third, the problems most troubling to most Americans seem largely immune to government. For example, the inadequacy of education in grades K-12, and the urban regression in the midst of societal prosperity, are problems of cultural values, character, behavior and family breakdown. In such problems, ameliorative government seems to have met its match.

President Clinton is the highest-ranking of 18 million civilian employees of government, which employs more people than all U.S. manufacturers combined. He is landlord of the federal government's 440,000 buildings, and custodian of the approximately one-third of the nation's land that the federal government owns.

Stephen Moore, in a report published by the Institute for Policy Innovation, says that since Kennedy came to power, government's share (federal, state, local) of gross national product has risen from 26.6 percent to 37 percent, and the public sector is now spending more than $23,000 per household.

Such numbers underscore a paradox that will haunt Mr. Clinton's presidency.

He was elected promising ''change.'' But he was elected only because voters decided that his party has changed in a direction that makes it less ambitious about using government as an instrument of change.

Everett Carll Ladd of the University of Connecticut and the American Enterprise Institute says that 1992 election data, far from revealing a demand for change, reveal remarkable continuity. The data gathered by a survey organization formed by CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN prove the durability of policy preferences that defined the Republican presidential era. ''Americans,'' says Mr. Ladd, ''gave no sign in the November balloting that they had abandoned their concerns about government's scope and role.''

Asked if they favored more services requiring more taxes, or fewer services from less expensive government, voters favored the latter, 55 percent to 36 percent. Perot voters ''were disproportionately libertarian-inclined independents and Republicans, who were angered by government's excesses and wanted a more restricted governmental role.''

Mr. Ladd believes that ''in terms of political philosophy,'' the ''Reagan Realignment'' survives:

''In the New Deal years, the sense of government's being too big, wasteful and intrusive was largely confined to Republican ranks. Today, in contrast, government's size and malperformance are seen as problems all across the political spectrum. Though they elected a Democrat to the presidency this year, voters indicated that they continue to favor the kind of restraint on government's growth that has been the basis of the GOP's ascendancy in presidential elections of the last quarter-century.''

An inauguration is an occasion for Americans to bask in the warmth of sentiments put into words by Stephen Vincent Benet:

We made this thing, this dream

This land unsatisfied by little ways

But nowadays Americans are unsentimental about government and chilly toward those who think government ''made this thing, this dream.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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