A Tired and Bothersome Noise

August 28, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A peculiar kind of noise is becoming steadily more bothersome. It is the rhetoric of extravagant assessments, whereby speakers penetrate the clutter of saturation journalism by expressing strident judgments which, when considered calmly, collapse like pierced balloons.

President Clinton recently contributed to the extravagance genre when, commenting on the crime bill's early travails, he said, ''When you walk away from . . . the crime bill . . . there's something wrong with the American system of government.'' The same day Vice President Gore, no slouch in the extravagance sweepstakes, announced that ''the future of the American idea is at risk.''

Mr. Clinton's and Mr. Gore's rhetoric expresses a political style that is inseparable from the substance of their politics. William Kristol, a Republican burr beneath Democratic saddles, believes such words ''go far beyond the routine vulgarity and self-importance of our politicians.''

Messrs. Clinton and Gore were making the fate of a flawed bill, and the political equilibrium of their administration, measures of the health of the polity itself. Actually, the bill's rough sledding is a sign of national health.

The bill has the attributes that usually guarantee easy passage -- its benefits are concentrated on grateful factions, its costs are diffused across the entire public.

People nervously saying the crime bill's tortuous path to passage indicates a need for ''bipartisanship'' should see that the bill is a mess because it is a product of bipartisanship. Both parties mutually agreed to tolerate the other's excesses, from social pork to multiplied death penalties. Republican second thoughts reflect a quickened sense of first principles.

As the federal government buckles beneath the weight of burdens it has indiscriminately taken on, and as Washington's confidence cracks under the buffeting of its failures and the public's disdain, there is an increasing readiness on the part of portions of the public and the political class to ask three threshold questions that should be asked before government does anything: Is this something government can do? Is this something government should do? Is this something the federal government should do? As these questions are asked with increasing insistence, political strife is bound to sharpen.

This summer's two great debates have concerned an expensive expansion of federal involvement in the fundamentally state and local business of crime control, and a radical expansion of federal intervention into an especially complex and sensitive sphere of life -- health care. The ferocity of these debates has dismayed Washington, where the word ''bipartisanship'' is on many lips when those lips are not tightly pursed in disapproval of the ferocity.

But understand: In Washington's political culture bipartisanship is considered a virtue because it tends to make every argument a question not of whether, but of how far and fast, government should expand. It is ''bipartisan'' to accept that there must be crime and health legislation, and ''bipartisan'' to argue only about how expensive and intrusive it should be.

Bill Clinton has been marinated all his adult life in government and may actually believe that the consensus of the political class in his formative years -- the 1960s, the Great Society and all that -- is somehow equivalent to ''the American system of government.'' Al Gore may really believe that ''the American idea'' is the idea of government he got while growing up in Washington in the 1960s. But these relatively young men, with their rhetoric that is both heated and quaint, seem remarkably antiquated.

Richard Snow, editor of American Heritage, notes how ''compressed'' American history is: ''Robert E. Lee was Light-Horse Harry Lee's son, after all, and there were men around in 1861 who had fought King George's soldiers to establish the nation that they were seeing fall apart.''

That was an approximately 80-year span. Today the compression of history is illustrated by the 60-year span between the coming of the New Deal and the coming apart of the faith that suffused it, the faith in the federal government as instigator of social progress. There are elderly people in Washington who helped raise the curtain on that era and who are now seeing the curtain drop.

They probably are, as the elderly often are, calm about America's course corrections. It is the younger people here who write $30 billion crime bills and 1,400-page health care bills and extravagantly say that the troubles such things encounter call into question ''the American system of government'' and ''the American idea.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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