Situation Normal: No Crisis

August 21, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- Government, like other situation comedies, is in summer reruns.

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon, addressing the nation about the U.S. ''incursion'' into Cambodia, warned that the United States dare not be perceived as ''a pitiful, helpless giant.''

Recently, as Congress writhed in its crime bill agonies, Speaker Tom Foley exclaimed, ''Let us not be a helpless giant!''

The federal government is an increasingly helpless giant. This is a good thing, given that the alternative is for the giant to get its way, which would not be good for a free society.

As the health care debate rages, remember the last time a problem partly caused by government (price and supply controls) was mis-described as a ''crisis'' by politicians eager to expand government's supervision of society.

Two months into the single term of the last Democratic president, he addressed the nation twice in three days, proclaiming an energy ''crisis.''

He blamed greed of the oil companies and the guile of its lobbyists for Congress' failure to pass an intricate program commensurate with the supposed scale of the crisis.

There were two problems with President Carter's message. His clear implication was that Congress, then in the 23rd consecutive year of Democratic control of both houses, was controlled by corrupt and cowardly toadies. This did not put Congress in a cooperative mood.

The oil companies' alleged greed was, Mr. Carter said, gouging the public with high prices. This thought was discordant with his puritan program premise that prices should be higher to discourage profligate use of energy.

The energy ''crisis'' faded partly because the next president, a deregulator, stopped some government measures that were making matters worse and allowed the market to make matters better.

Sen. Phil Gramm's health care bill would provide a rerun of this, regarding today's supposed crisis.

Today's president promises to deal with the health care ''crisis'' (at first called a crisis of costs, but now of access) by increasing demand for health care, while controlling the supply and simultaneously lowering costs (which allegedly reflect the greed insurance companies, drug manufacturers and others).

One result of President Clinton's campaign for this implausible plan is his current political anemia. This anemia is being mis-characterized as a ''crisis'' of the presidency.

It really is the resurgence of the American norm, the natural constitutional condition called congressional supremacy.

When asked what the president wanted in the crime bill, Rep. Newt Gingrich said acerbicly: ''The president wants many things. He doesn't have the votes. The fact is, a free society is not about placating the senior elected official.''

Granted, Mr. Gingrich is the Republican's speaker-in-waiting.

But Sen. Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat, had a similarly un-deferential tone when, on the same program, he was asked about his refusal to support Majority Leader George Mitchell's bill, and Mr. Clinton's vow that the Mitchell bill is the minimum he can accept without a veto. Mr. Kerrey replied chillily:

''It should be clear that the president doesn't vote in Congress, and we've got our work to do.''

Moments later, he added: ''Once again I say, with great respect for the president's difficulties, Congress has to do its job, and if the president decides he doesn't want to sign the bill, then we have to make a judgment as to whether or not we can muster the votes to override a veto.''

Mr. Clinton's supporters say his health care ideas would complete the governmental provision of security begun during the New Deal with Social Security, and would complete what the Great Society began with Medicare.

But Social Security was proposed by an extraordinarily popular president when the nation was in a real, indeed unprecedented, crisis.

Medicare was proposed by a president fresh from a record-breaking landslide election, and when the nation was naively euphoric about government skillfully spending the revenues that supposedly would gush to it because of its deft management of economic growth.

Times have changed.

Mr. Clinton, sagging even below his 43 percent beginning, cannot revive the heroic presidency to energize a government now broadly distrusted.

He may wish the American mood were what it was in the mid-1960s, or mid-1930s, but it is more like what is was in the mid-1920s, when Oliver Wendell Holmes said of President Coolidge:

''While I don't expect anything very astonishing from him, I don't want anything very astonishing.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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