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Volume 14, Number 3
When To Cheer
George Wallace's famous contention that "there ain't a dime's worth of difference" between Democrats and Republicans has received ample corroboration since the 1994 elections. The $50 billion Mexican peso bailout, opposed by some 80% of Americans, has been only the most flagrant example of the real meaning of "bipartisanship."
The fact that one of the bailout's most outspoken opponents was the socialist Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont goes a long way toward demonstrating that something is very wrong with our "two-party" system.
But there is one key difference between the two parties that is of no mean importance. The Democrats, for their part, portray even the most minor setback as utterly catastrophic. After a 1995 Supreme Court ruling critical of racial gerrymandering, for example, a casual observer of the left's reaction could be forgiven for supposing that blacks were being re-enslaved.
The Republicans, on the other hand, exaggerate only when they win. As various planks of the Contract with America passed the House and Senate in 1995, Republican leaders began to speak in millennial tones about the "revolution" they are leading and the "permanence" of their great victories.
The Brookings Institution provided a more sober and accurate analysis of the battle over the Contract: "Viewed historically, the Contract represents the final consolidation of the bedrock domestic policies and programs of the New Deal, the Great Society, the post-Second World War defense establishment, and, most importantly, the deeply rooted national political culture that has grown up around them."
Such dispassionate assessments have been all too rare. With both Democrats and Republicans insisting, amidst the most trivial proposals, that drastic changes are being contemplated, the result is a hopelessly confused populace.
A Time/CNN poll taken in December 1995, for example, found that 47% of Americans believe that "the cuts in federal spending proposed by the Republicans in Congress" have "gone too far." An interesting follow-up question would have been: "How drastic have you been led to believe that those cuts actually are?"
For indeed, Democratic hysteria aside, the battle over Medicare was so trivial as almost to defy belief. Bill Clinton wanted the rate of the program's spending growth set at 7.5% a year; the Republicans advocated an allegedly draconian 6% growth. By 2002, the difference in the monthly premiums authorized by Administration and Republican proposals would amount to five dollars.
The overall budget debate has also been much ado about nothing. The difference between Clinton's seven-year budget proposal and that of the Republicans is that the former calls for an increase of $500 billion in the annual budget for the year 2002, whereas the latter seeks a $350 billion increase.
Moreover, as with all multi-year plans for spending reduction, the key is to discover how much of the ballyhooed spending "cuts" come in the plan's last few years. This is standard procedure: make the less significant changes up front, and save anything more drastic for future Congresses, even though no multi-year plan can bind a future Congress. This is obviously a recipe for continued inaction in the future, and unfortunately, it describes the Republican proposal perfectly.
Since the Republicans will apparently take the heat in the press whether their proposed reforms be trivial or truly revolutionary, the obvious question becomes: then why not make drastic cuts in these programs? How could the PR get any worse? The whole country, after all, assumes that this is precisely what the Republicans are doing already.
One answer was provided in late 1994 by neoconservative power broker Bill Kristol, then head of the Project for a Republican Future. In the wake of the Republican landslide in the November elections, Kristol sent an urgent fax all over Washington, urging Republicans to engage in merely cosmetic reforms and above all not to behave recklessly (i.e., actually shrink the government).
Was this the brazen betrayal of principle that it appeared? Not at all, Kristol assured us. Republicans must direct their energies toward regaining the White House in 1996. Then, the implication went, we could begin abolishing departments and shutting down agencies.
Yet to whom did Kristol offer his enthusiastic support for President just months ago? Colin Powell--by any rational account, a peculiar choice for ushering in a "Republican Future." If we wanted a President who favored gun control, racial quotas, and globaloney, and most emphatically did not want to tear up Washington, D.C., root and branch, we could stick with Clinton and save ourselves the trouble.
Neoconservatives have described trivial and piecemeal reforms as a necessary modus operandifor reducing the size and scope of government. But when they favor such an approach even when they hold all the cards--and insist on calling a slate of piddling reforms a "revolution"--we may justly question whether their chief motivation is principle or mere power.
Thomas Woods is a graduate student in History at Columbia University