The Budget Is Big on Cynicism

ELLEN GOODMAN

August 10, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- This is what it came down to in the final dispirited week of Washington-watching.

The call for ''shared sacrifice'' had turned into a plea for a 4.3 cent increase in a gasoline tax.

The mantra of change, ''historic action,'' came to rest on a plan for a modest reduction in the budget deficit. The ''bold step'' and ''new era'' boiled down to ''this plan or no plan.''

And the people who once talked of a New Covenant ran a concession stand, trading compromises for Senate votes.

When the president's cry that, ''We're all in this together,'' subsided, the one thing we were in together was the old doldrums. The sigh that I heard was the sound of the helium escaping the balloon of political promise.

As a candidate, Clinton asked Americans to ''vote your hopes, not your fears.'' Those hopes were tempered by doubts. As a newly elected president, he played endless choruses of ''Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.'' But we worried about the drag of yesterday's debts and yesterday's habits.

Americans knew about the gap between political rhetoric and reality, between what you want and what you can get.

But since January, Washington has come to seem more and more like a force of nature, a Mississippi that erodes or floods the people who try to change its ways. Sooner or later, it seems, politicians go with the flow or get overwhelmed.

Washington -- the word we use to describe the permanent establishment of media, Congress, lobbyists -- is a city that lives on crises and dines out on criticism. It has been relentless in its pressure on the newcomers.

Who knows what this pressure did to break through the internal levees around White House lawyer Vincent Foster's sense of worth before he committed suicide?

Routinely, Washington pours its coldest water on ideals. It floods the landscape inside the Capital Beltway with an easy and sophisticated bath of skepticism.

From this epicenter, the media beams out its daily reports on the ebb and flow of power without even realizing that their beat has become cynicism. Analysts and reporters tell us when we are being conned, when the budget is neither the biggest deficit cutter nor the biggest tax raiser. But there are no nightly reports on sincerity.

In the past years, too many Americans have become part of that closed loop, that beltway of skeptical insiderism. We are people who refuse to be suckered. And refuse to believe. We have become detached from politics as anything but management and power-mongering.

In this atmosphere, it's not surprising that the new president has had trouble staking out the high ground. He is a man who always spoke out of two sides of his mouth -- and I do not mean as a hypocrite.

He talked in the language of values and the language of pragmatism. He used the Sunday cadences of the moralist and the daily voice of the deal-maker. But Washington only hears its own tune.

When Hillary Clinton spoke this spring, during her father's illness, about a ''crisis of meaning'' in America, Washington lampooned her as Saint Hillary.

When it was discovered that the Clintons discussed the ''politics of meaning,'' even the meaning of political life, their questioning was dismissed as sophomoric.

Caught in this unrelenting current, the president who talked about finding a third way has spent his time negotiating between the two old ways. Whether the issue is the budget or gays in the military or national service, he has faced the choice between yet another stalemate and yet another trade-off.

Instead of establishing common ground, he has made compromises. Instead of circumscribing new values, he has patched together uneasy alliances of self-interest.

I don't mean to suggest that the new government is a failure. But the successes are at the margins and in the fine print. They have been wrestled out of the status quo at a high price.

The man in the White House has not yet established the trust that lets us drop the guard of skepticism. We see the details, but not the big picture. We see the politics, but not (with all due respect) the meaning.

Without that connection between people and president, between principles and pie charts, between meaning and policy, the White House is a captive of cynicism. And the only thing that the people inside it can do is to keep on bailing.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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