Right, Left embrace welfare state

September 24, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON - In democracies, decadent political movements explain their defeats in terms of tactics: Our message is fine but our messengersare flawed.

Conservatives said that after their 1992 and 1996 presidential defeats. In advanced stages of decrepitude, political movements ascribe their frustrations to the electorates intellectual shortcomings and moral corruption. Some conservatives who are disappointed with this year's presidential campaign are close to espousing "blame Americans first" conservatism.

Just six years ago the 1994 congressional elections sent to Washington a wave of legislators vowing radically to reduce Washington's post-New DeaI role. But it today's polls are indicative, an electoral majority is prepared to vote for Al Gore's promise of a substantial expansion of that role.

Especially now that George W. Bush has abandoned the folly of running against someone not on the ballot (Bill Clinton, and Al Gore as his mere extension), he is conducting a reasonably competent and highly substantive campaign.

He is currently behind because, so far, a majority of voters are buying what Mr. Gore is selling, which are plans for en even more omnipresent and omniprovident government. Yet many conservatives cling to the comforting thought that the public either is being courted badly by Mr. Bush, or has been rendered contemptible by addiction to government.

For years Democrats tried to drain Ronald Reagan's electoral successes of significance, arguing first that voters were dolts mesmerized by the smile, then arguing that voters were venal (the "Decade of Greed"). Voters know how to repay such insults.

This year some conservatives are exaggerating the ideological clarity of the choice. Consider economic policy.

In "The Agenda," his book on the early Clinton presidency. Bob Woodward reports that a sarcastic Mr. Clinton "bellowed" to his staff that "we're Eisenhower Republicans. .. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?"

Actually, it was, for conservatives. And is. A conservative case can be made for Mr. Gore's economic plan over Mr. Bush's, if Mr. Gore means it- a large if.

America's savings rate is negative, consumer debt is at a record high and unemployment is so low that across 'the nation there are new restaurants that cannot open because workers cannot be found.

In this context, Mr. Bush's proposal for a $1.3 trillion tax cut (over 10 years) would further stimulate consumption, probably prompting a rise in interest rates, which would crimp private sector investment and further reduce the (hypothetical) surplus by increasing the cost of servicing government's debt. The cost was $263 billion in 1999, 15 percent of federal spending, almost 3 percent of gross domestic product.

Mr. Gore's proposal to pay the national debt down to zero by 2012 would stimulate private sector investment, perhaps producing the productivity increase needed if the economy, with fewer and fewer workers relative to retirees, is to avoid being suffocated by the burden of financing pensions and medical care for the elderly.

Robert M. Solow, Nobel Prizewinning economist from MIT, argues in The New York Review of Books that Treasury bonds - public debt --- displace corporate securities in investors' portfolios As the government retires bonds, presumably "the former bondholders will want to re-acquire some earning assets," such as corporate securities, rather than hold cash or increase consumption.

So Mr. Bush, supposed friend of corporate America, would increase families' disposable incomes. Mr. Gore, supposed friend of "working families," would fatten corporate ledgers. But regarding the welfare state, there is no fundamental difference.

In 1976, running against the conservative Sen. James Buckley, Pat Moynihan exclaimed that some people "simply never accepted the New Deal. Didn't Franklin Roosevelt settle this issue once and for all? I mean, do we really have to go over it again?" We did after 1980 and 1994. Perhaps never again, particularly if Mr. Gore wins.

But Mr. Bush, too, accepts the premise of America's welfare state. His proposal for partial privatization of Social Security and his more market - oriented approach to a prescription drug entitlement are markedly superior to Mr. Gore's proposals. But the clear premise of the Bush campaign is this: Regarding two of life's largest anxieties, illness and old age, Americans' individualism is merely nostalgic arid rhetorical. Americans accept the ethic of common provision.

Conservatives may regret this, but regret is not a political strategy. And the core conservative virtue is prudence, which means facing facts and understanding practicalities. In response to the Soviet suppression of the 1953 uprising in East Germany, Bertolt Brecht wrote, "Would it not be easier ... for the govenment to dissolve the people and elect another?" That is not a practical program for conservatives.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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