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W.'s Way

Welcome to the Fourth Way. Or is it the Fifth?

Bill Clinton, we know, was the Third. Between the traditional Roosevelt/Truman/Johnson big-government liberalism and the traditional Coolidge/Reagan anti-government conservatism, Clinton built a Halfway House he called the Third Way. The era of big government was over, but pick-your-shots activism — a little more health insurance for kids here, a spate of new ergonomic workplace regulations there — was fine.

And for the first half of George W.’s address to Congress on Tuesday night, our new president strolled amiably down the Third Way, too. Right at the top of his speech, he bemoaned the “old tired argument [between] on one side, those who want more government, regardless of the cost; [and] on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need. We should leave those arguments to the last century,” he counseled, “and chart a different course . . . Our new governing vision says government should be active but limited, engaged but not overbearing.”

It was as if the Pardoner had never left us. Bill Clinton could not have said it better, nor Dick Morris triangulated it more deftly. What W.’s address confirms is the triumph of Clintonism as America’s dominant public philosophy. In tone and argumentation, the speech was pure Clinton.

In substance, however, it was pure Reagan. What Bush is offering is the second coming of the Reagan tax cut: a massive redistribution of resources to the rich, which will have the ancillary effect of thwarting the government’s ability to provide health insurance, better schools, subsidized child care, the works. But unlike Reagan, who said right upfront that government was the problem, Bush has hijacked the rhetoric of Clintonism to dress up his advocacy of Reaganism. The Third Way has been enlisted in the service of the First — if that’s what we call Reagan/Thatcher conservatism; or is it the Second? Call it the Fourth Way — or is it the Fifth?

This deception is understandable. Bush could not possibly argue for Reaganism on Reaganism’s terms. Reagan took power on the wings of an anti-tax revolt, having dispatched a Democratic incumbent president and brought in a heavily Republican Senate on his coattails. Bush took power with a popular-vote margin of negative 540,000. He took power with every poll showing that the electorate preferred Al Gore’s proposals for spending and debt retirement to his own proposal for a massive tax cut. On the morning of his speech, an ABC/Washington Post poll showed that 35 percent of the public favored spending the surplus on increasing domestic programs, 25 percent on strengthening Social Security, 22 percent on cutting taxes and 17 percent on debt retirement. That’s 60 percent support for big government, which Americans tend to favor so long as it’s targeted at the great middle class and isn’t labeled big government.

So what’s a tax cutter to do? Facing numbers like those, even Reagan wouldn’t have sounded like Reagan. Bush’s solution, plainly, was to sound like Clinton. The entire first half of his speech was devoted to listing government programs he would support, and providing assurances that he’d continue to retire the debt. He affirmed a patient’s bill of rights, so long as it didn’t result in more lawsuits; he vowed to clean up brownfields and spiff up the national parks. He even called for an end to racial profiling — though in the next breath, he said that he’d entrusted this task to John Ashcroft, who for all we know may still want to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

For 30 minutes, Bush spoke of helping schools and paying off debt; he defended every purpose on which the public wants the surplus spent. Lyndon Johnson, the last real Texan to serve as president (Poppy Bush was a Kennebunkport Texan), argued during the Vietnam War that we could afford guns and butter; W. argued on Tuesday night that we could afford guns, some butter — and a tax cut, too.

This, of course, is nonsense. Taking $2 trillion out of the federal budget, and handing back close to $1 trillion of that to our wealthiest 1 percent, will force any number of public programs to clank to a halt; already, the Labor Department is looking at cuts in job training and workplace oversight. Bush argued that taxes are too high, though in fact taxes on middle-income Americans are a little lower than they’ve been in years.

On top of this, Bush proposed setting aside an additional trillion dollars for a rainy-day fund — actually, though he did not say so directly, a fund to help subsidize the privatization of Social Security. This trillion is designed to make up the shortfall to current Social Security recipients when younger workers are handed a portion of their Social Security investment and told to go make a killing on the NASDAQ instead.

Bush, however, merely said this trillion dollars was there for “additional needs.” You might think that providing health insurance to the 43 million Americans who have none might be one such need, but apparently that’s not how a Compassionate Conservative thinks.

Nor is it how a Democratic leader thinks: In delivering their response to Bush, House leader Dick Gephardt and Senate leader Tom Daschle both argued for paying down that last trillion in debt that Bush argued couldn’t easily be retired. On this one point, W. may actually have the better of the argument: There are savings bonds and T-notes that won’t come due anytime soon, and buying them all back seems a peculiar priority for the public’s dollars. But Gephardt and Daschle were certainly right to try to derail privatizing the nation’s social-retirement system; to argue for a smaller, fairer and less permanent tax cut; to point out that the president’s proposal would come at the expense of school kids and the medically uninsured.

While no one’s made any money lately betting on Democratic resolve, it should be noted that the Democrats are thus far countering Bush a lot more adeptly than they opposed Reagan in 1981. They stayed politely seated throughout much of the president’s speech; only one of their 50 senators, Georgia’s Zell Miller, has flaked on them and endorsed W.’s proposal, while several Republican senators have joined them in expressing misgivings. Mass opinion, as registered in the polling, is on their side, while elite opinion prefers debt retirement to the vulgar acquisitivism of Reaganomics. The anti-statist impulse in American politics has been receding ever since Newt Gingrich forced Americans to confront the prospect of an America where government actually closed its doors. Liberal institutions may be smaller now than they were in 1981, but they do a far better job of building alliances and mobilizing their members; John Sweeney’s AFL-CIO is more potent politically than Lane Kirkland’s. And Florida has plunged the Democratic base into a state of chronic righteous indignation.

In sum, though they controlled the House in 1981, the Democrats are in almost every other way in a stronger position to oppose the new Republican president’s tax cut now than they were then, not least because the consequences of the ’81 tax cut — the deficit and the accompanying paralysis of government — have only recently begun to wane, and because the consequences of the ’93 tax increase on the rich — which closed the deficit and triggered a prolonged prosperity — have been so manifestly positive. With all these stars aligned in their favor, the Democrats should be able to craft a smaller tax cut, steer it to the poor and the middle class, redirect resources into prescription-drug coverage and universal health care for children. They should be able to make a case so compelling that no moderate Republican senator from the Northeast could support W.’s tax cut.

Then again, the Democrats’ capacity to cave is the stuff of legend. So, to all those Blue Dogs and New Dogs who need to be stiffened, or coaxed, or cajoled into sticking with your party and sticking up for your non-wealthy constituents, consider this: Young W. came before you, and the nation, Tuesday night and was compelled to speak as Old Bill, the Disgraced, the Reviled, because it was Old Bill’s vision, and Al Gore’s program, that the nation supports. If there were support for a Reaganesque tax cut, W. would sound like Reagan.

Take a lesson from the Gipper, guys: Just say no.


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