New Deal nation

January 31, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Republicans, distracted by the turmoil unleashed by President Clinton's glandular life, have not dealt with the policy problem that was acute by the time Hurricane Monica sent America's political argument to the storm cellar. The problem is that the GOP espouses a doctrine the public rejects and that Republicans do not really believe -- the doctrine of limited government.

By 1998 Republicans had suffered twin calamities -- the hell of peace and the embarrassment of power. The passing of the Cold War devalued Republicans' defense and foreign policy credibility. And Republican control of Congress proved that Republicans do not mean their strictures against even the little bits of "big government": the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was created three decades ago in a television environment of three networks, survives in a 500-channel world.

Republicans have earned the enmity of the electorate by calling its bluff: The electorate resents the embarrassing revelation that it is only rhetorically conservative. It is practically liberal, as long as government growth is funded by constant tax rates. Every part of "big government" has a constituency, and the biggest parts, the entitlement programs, have the biggest constituencies.

Now Republicans are experiencing a third calamity, the nightmare of surpluses, which seem to guarantee growth of government services without the irritation of increased taxation. About this dynamic, Ronald Reagan was prescient. He hoped his tax cuts would be so stimulative to the economy that they would be partially self-financing, but he knew that if defense increases and insufficient domestic spending cuts produced large deficits, they would be beneficial by putting government on a short leash. Now surpluses have let it slip its leash.

It is romping like a Great Dane puppy, unrestrained by any memory of that short-lived "Republican revolution." With the important exception of welfare reform, the 1994 elections did not presage an era of new thinking about the scope of federal responsibilities. Rather, those elections began a flamboyant but brief final flaring of the Anti-Federalist persuasion -- the idea that most human desires and sorrows are not public problems, and for those that are, federal action should be the rare and last resort.

Mr. Clinton was interrupted by applause 104 times during his 77-minute State of the Union address, which was a deluge of sugary adjectives: "decent" incomes, "affordable" prescription medicines, "more affordable" student loans, "higher" academic standards, "sensible" school discipline, etc. Little of his laundry list may be enacted.

However, there probably is no Republican majority -- perhaps not even a significant Republican faction -- fundamentally opposed, as a matter of principle, to, say, Mr. Clinton's idea that ending social promotion in schools is a federal responsibility. Or to extending to employees of smaller firms coverage of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

"This should not be a political issue," Mr. Clinton said, when calling for "a farm safety net." In fact, it is not much of a political issue because it does not pit the parties against each other.

An apparent paradox is that the richer the nation becomes, the more its politics concerns assuaging insecurities. That is partly because insecurity is a byproduct of the economic dynamism that is making the nation richer. Also, many modern developments, from medical technologies to public policies, offer the tantalizing hope that many insecurities once taken for granted can be banished.

But the apparent paradox is actually a clash of definitions of freedom. Republicans define freedom as an absence of restraints imposed by government. Democrats define freedom as an absence of necessity, which government exists to reduce. America has not moved as far as it thinks it has beyond the argument about the New Deal, when Franklin Roosevelt insisted, "Necessitous men are not free men."

Stock prices have increased tenfold in 16 years. The longer America's surge of wealth-creation continues, the lower the public's pain threshold becomes, and the higher the public's expectations for government guarantees against uncertainty and compulsion by events. Come the next bear market, it will be clear that Americans are all Roosevelt's children.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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