Will Bush Become a Budget-Slasher?

There is an array of approaches for abandoning alcohol. Wasn’t it Saul Pieman who wrote the classic song, "Fifty Ways to Love Your Liver"?

Yet we were always told that it is impossible to wean our nation from overweening government programs. Even social security could not be achieved without Sam adding a large S — or two. We were no longer UN-selfish, it was all about U.S. The job of politicians was to devise ever more channels for tax money to flow out of Washington, thus necessitating ever more channels for tax money to flow into Washington. Currents for currency. And if it’s taxing to track all that tariff traffic, well, that’s why the Good Lord created bureaucrats.

Still believing that the public’s nostrils were aquiver for such nostrums, President Bush took office burning to bring the elders into the promised land of prescription drug coverage. Twisting arms of Republican members of Congress got his bill passed by 218-217. What a triumph! This was a right angle that would make Pythagoras salivate. People would come with passion to “compassionate conservatism.” Praise be the Architect! (You know what they say: when Rove is bushed, then Bush starts roving off message.)

Fallen flat though, has it not? The new benefit has not brought much new benefit politically. And not just because the paperwork is annoying and cumbersome, but because — don’t look now — the era of Big Government is over.

REALLY AND TRULY OVER. No one has officially noticed, but there has been a historic sea change.

It used to be standard operating procedure for a new program to be proposed weekly in Washington. A little bit of warm-up time would be spent hyping the latest “crisis” in the media. A few senators and congressmen would issue stentorian fulminations warning darkly that the fate of our nation hung starkly in the balance. Then, a week or two later, there would be a call for a new “initiative.” At an initially projected cost of a scant few billion dollars, the government would solve the national algae crisis by sending a 10-man crew of illegal aliens to clean every pool in America … or some such thing. And woe betide any fiscal conservative who griped about the cost: he would be forever slimed as pro-fungus.

The unspoken premise was that this is what Washington does. This is the natural state of affairs. This is the role of government. Now, the first people who bought into this may have been bought by the promise of getting free money. Eventually the idea had gained a stranglehold on the culture. No one thought that they were being selfish or grasping when they asked for a grant to solve their personal problem. Government is there to serve citizens, isn’t it? We pay taxes, don’t we? This lesson entered our mores.

Well, I’m not sure who to credit, but somehow this is no longer our vocabulary. Some cumulative effect of Reagan and talk radio and the Contract With America and having a Republican Congress for 12 years has enabled a new generation to arise. A generation that no longer looks to government for solutions — and the more unwieldy the better — to all of life’s irritants.

If this observation is accurate, then the growth of federal spending in recent years can be checked with relative ease. All the money is going out for old programs like Medicare and for very localized earmarks that really represent politicians helping politicians rather than responding to any impassioned demand from constituents. Once the man and woman in the street no longer cry upward for relief at every turn, budget cutting will be possible at the federal level just as it has been successfully practiced in states, cities and counties.

It is very far from the conventional wisdom, but President Bush could really grab the popular imagination in his last two years if he turned into a hard-nosed budget-slasher. He could speak softly to the people, with the type of down home language that Mario Cuomo used to use years ago in New York: “If my wife borrows too much on our credit card, my next year’s salary is going to be eaten up by interest payments.” (In later years he started running big deficits, so he stopped talking that way.)

In times past, budget-cutting was considered too technocratic and lacking in drama to be an effective issue on a national scale. However, in an era when people have scaled back their expectations of government, they will be eager to hear that it will stop mortgaging their future. The time to stop our spending addiction is now, when we can right ourselves without much lasting damage and perhaps say, as Winston Churchill did: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”