AFTER A DOSE of Newt Gingrich negativism and Bill Clinton minimalism, American voters can write off any chance of meaningful reform this year of the nation's big entitlement programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, veterans benefits and the biggest enchilada, Social Security. Budget experts have long contended that there can be no permanent cure of Washington's addiction to deficit financing so long as these programs run on automatic pilot, going up each year regardless of the budget situation.
At best, contending politicians will adjust the numbers to pretend they will achieve a balanced budget in seven years. This not an inconsiderable achievement if it brings current government expenditures and revenues more into line. But it cannot disguise the fact that the largest projected savings are backloaded into the never-never years of 2001 and 2002, when a future Congress and president will do what is politically necessary. Nor is an adjustment in the consumer price index (CPI) to reduce the size of annual cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs), while helpful, an adequate substitute for putting real caps on entitlement outlays.
President Clinton adroitly trots out that old truism -- don't make the perfect the enemy of the good -- to explain a re-election strategy that will leave the big philosophical questions to be decided by the voters in November. Sounds great, but it is what the Germans call Quatsch. This election, like all elections, will come down to personalities, slogans and October surprises or gimmickry. You can be sure the transcendent issues Mr. Clinton talks about -- i.e. the role and size of government -- will still be around on Inauguration Day.
As for Speaker Gingrich, his public doubts about any budget agreement at all may appeal to the kamikaze contingent in the House Republican caucus. But this may be further evidence that he is losing his political touch. Such an outcome would deny the GOP its precious tax cuts, its claims to concrete revolutionary achievements and even the dubious promise of a "balanced budget." The whole superstructure of the welfare state -- including these runaway entitlement programs -- would remain essentially as we know it.
Clearly, the nation has every right to want something better than Gingrich negativism and Clinton minimalism. But the chances of getting it are dwindling by the day.