Where were the good guys?

Sandy Grady

August 12, 1993|By Sandy Grady

WE HAVE met the enemy and he is us," said Pogo Possum, the Walt Kelly cartoon character.

Pogo's classic wisdom should have been etched over the U.S. Capitol's granite portals.

When the dust cleared from the Battle of the Budget, the enemy was clear. It was all of us.

Sure, the $500 billion deficit-cutting deal passed, but only in an orgy of selfishness, egoism, fear and protecting No. 1. I can't remember Congress slinking away from a big vote with such fatalistic shame.

Okay, it wasn't a Feel Good vote. Any politician hates to raise taxes. Maybe it won't work -- the deficit won't be braked, the economy will sour. But it was the only game in town.

But nobody looked good in this mean-spirited mud bath -- not the Democrats, the Republicans, the White House, the media or the American public.

Even Democrats get no trophy for courage.

Sure, some Dems put careers on the line. Others blackmailed the president with petty demands. Others hid in their offices to duck pressure. Forty-one House members and six senators still deserted. Then the whips (an accurate job description) browbeat Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, D-Pa., their most fragile, vulnerable freshman, to save them from humiliation.

Any film of that last shameful moment, when House leaders bullied a wide-eyed Margolies-Mezvinsky into the 218th and saving vote while Republicans jeered, "Goodbye, Marjorie," should be destroyed. The mob scene had the class of a drunken soccer riot.

For intellectual bankruptcy, though, you couldn't beat the crassness of Republicans.

They were robots programmed to keep droning, "No." They wouldn't have broken ranks if the budget included a statue of Bob Dole atop the Capitol. Ah, and who can forget the blazing hypocrisy of Texas senators bellowing for "more spending cuts" while pleading for the space station and super collider billions?

Yep, it was a team effort -- plenty of cravenness, careerism and ineptness for all.

Bill Clinton's White House, despite hype for its "boiler-room" operation, let Republican image makers outwit them. In TV ads and speeches, Republicans distorted the budget as a tax hit on the middle class. The Clinton gang was badly outmaneuvered in getting out its message -- that it couldn't devise a $500 billion deficit deal so gentle on the middle class.

And maybe we in the media, intent on the political drama, are guilty of not making that fact clear.

The Republican fear campaign doesn't explain the thunderous phone calls -- probably 5 million over the week -- that bombarded Congress. Most were primal screams: "Don't raise my middle-class taxes, you bums." Polls were as negative.

The public deserves no higher marks for nobility or self-sacrifice than Washington politicians. I'm struck by the disconnect between the 1992 campaign -- those huzzahs when Ross Perot, Paul Tsongas and sometimes even Mr. Clinton talked about "hard choices" -- and 1993's miasma of self-interest.

The '92 balloon and cheers have faded into "what's-in-it-for-me" cynicism. We're back to Sen. Russell Long's lament, "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree."

In truth, as sandbagging scenes from the flooded Mississippi show, Americans rally wonderfully in crisis or war. But a $4 trillion debt or jobs lost in a global economy are too fuzzy to pump the national heart beat -- unless a president is a helluva salesman.

Bill Clinton, nagged by old doubts, isn't that leader yet. But I'd excuse Mr. Clinton from this catalog of cowardice. He tried. Sure, he failed to arouse the public. Sure, he surrendered valuable chunks like the BTU tax and ran a bazaar for greedy Honorables. But when he passed the budget deal by a lone vote in the House and Senate, Mr. Clinton pushed the envelope to the limit.

I suspect Mr. Clinton is in conflict with himself. He wants government action -- the National Service program and tax credits for working poor are his triumphs. Instead, he has to play a Scrooge-like bookkeeper who tells the public, "Eat your spinach."

"He's off to the races now," says Clinton adviser Paul Begala. "He can't wait to get started."

True, Mr. Clinton's confidence has a new aura -- hey, a win's a win. But the sour self-interest of the budget deal makes the battles over health care, welfare reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement look dicey.

He's knows he can't repeat his budget mistake of ignoring Republicans. Mr. Clinton's approval rating, 45 percent despite the budget victory, is too shaky to sell such controversies.

"We can't have every issue decided on partisanship, scheduled around trips to New Hampshire for a primary four years away," Mr. Clinton said at a post-budget rally. "I don't care whether it's called liberal or conservative . . . I'm interested in tomorrow, not yesterday."

Listening, Senator Dole? Maybe next time Pogo will be wrong. We're all players in the game.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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