Metastasizing Government


February 19, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- At the end of the worst first month of a modern presidency, there lingers, in fading echo, the word ''covenant.'' That word, which candidate Clinton used to describe the relationship he wanted between government and citizenry, means, in a democracy, a solemn promise to keep promises.

The fraying of Mr. Clinton's covenant with the electorate evokes this question: Which president does he resemble? Not Kennedy, whose tax cut ignited a boom. Rather, Mr. Clinton resembles the two presidents of his politically formative years, Johnson and Nixon.

His conduct since the campaign marks his campaign as the most disingenuous since at least 1964, when Lyndon Johnson disguised his intentions regarding Vietnam. Also, his plans for expanding government's graspingness and bossiness resemble Johnson's.

And Richard Nixon's, whose administration oversaw explosive growth of the regulatory state. Nixon's wage and price controls (President Clinton is contemplating control-by-edict of prices in the health-care field) were the most radical extension of federal power into economic life since the 1930s.

One economic promise about which Mr. Clinton remains punctilious is one he should abandon -- his promise to stimulate the economy, which is surging. What is breathtaking about the president's pork-laden stimulus package -- fine-tuning tax credits, grants for state and local governments, Amtrak, road repairs -- is its banality. For this you do not need to go to Oxford, you just need to have gone to sleep 20 years ago.

His larger program -- tax increases, defense cuts, domestic spending increases, ''administrative efficiencies,'' proposed jTC domestic cuts, most of which will not materialize -- hardly amounts to ''re-inventing government.''

George Stephanopoulus, the president's spokesman, promises a ''reversal of Reaganism.'' Reaganism: a record 93 months of growth, low inflation, declining interest rates and unemployment, almost 19 million new jobs, exports nearly doubled, one-third increase in real GNP. Mr. Clinton may indeed keep his promise to reverse this.

Still, President Clinton has worked one miracle: Several million Americans overnight have joined the ranks of the rich. He says that 70 percent of the increases will fall on families earning more than $100,000. Well. A mid-level head nurse in the Northeast earns $47,000. If her husband is a New York City school principal, his starting salary was $69,776. Mr. Clinton says it is time such people paid for their opulence.

The modern presidency, devoted to incessant manipulation of public opinion, manufactures ersatz crises to hold the public's attention. Hence the overheated rhetoric about America's ''decline.''

Japan's economy is reeling. Germany's growth rate has lagged behind America's since the 1970s and its GNP is shrinking. Both Britain and France have double-digit unemployment. A growing majority of jobs in advanced countries are in service industries and America's service sector is much the most productive in the world. In spite of the Carter stagflation and the Bush recession, real per-capita after-tax income has increased 34 percent in 20 years. America's estimated 25 percent share of the world's total product is about what it was in 1965; and in 1938; and 1900.

Why, then, the rhetoric about decline? To stampede the public to accept more statism.

But there is one real decline that Mr. Clinton's program should reverse: that of the GOP. Conservatism's vitality is linked to the public's disgust with the political class. Mr. Clinton's multiplying apostasies from his campaign themes and promises -- from all that was supposed to define a ''new Democrat'' -- are, to say no more, not calculated to enhance the reputation of the political class.

Furthermore, his agenda of metastasizing government propels Republicans back to Reaganism from Bushism. Consider, again, the president's stimulus. If government raises $X billions in new taxes and sends out an equal amount of billions in ''stimulus,'' the result is not, as Democrats see it, a wash. Rather, the result is ''progressive'' because government has gained yet more ground in reducing the scope of private choice and increasing the permeation of life by politics. That is the liberalism of ''new Democrats,'' as of old ones.

Will Congress cooperate? Perhaps. But the House in which President Clinton spoke Wednesday evening is composed of 435 members, all of whom did better than his 42.9 percent in November. The average of those who won against opposition was 63.1 percent, substantially better than even Clinton's 53.4 percent of the two-party vote. They may not defer to his political judgment.

All of them will face the voters again in 20 months. Most of them probably understand that if Mr. Clinton had said four months ago what he is saying now, he would still be living in Little Rock.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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