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Bold Ideas Reduced to Movie Talk : Budget Debate Demands More

February 09, 1986|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — Whatever happens to the federal budget this year, whatever the final verdict on Gramm-Rudman, whatever the final fate of the President's revolutionary fiscal policy, Hollywood has already won. Washington's great debate is developing a character and language better suited to entertainment than to epochal, watershed policy-making.

"Dead on Arrival" only sounds like a new hospital series; it's how Congress describes President Reagan's just-proposed pro-military, anti-social spending 1987 budget.

Of course, that's more polished than the Clint Eastwood line the President used some months back about reports that Congress would send him a tax increase: "Go ahead. Make my day." House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) has adopted the same Hollywood spirit by saying Congress won't talk about taxes until the President puts "his Magnum back in his holster."

Enough is enough. This is incredibly trivializing talk for a debate of national significance. The escalating uncertainly about Gramm-Rudman only adds to the drama. We don't need any more slogans about games of chicken, Rambonomics or DOA fiscal policy. Bluntly put, the President is proposing to escalate defense spending by $33 billion next year while shrinking domestic and safety-net spending by almost as much. So deep is his commitment to reducing the role of government that he refuses to contemplate a tax increase as an alternative to decimating rural assistance, transportation, Medicaid and the like. That's an enormously bold blueprint, and here are three insufficiently discussed pivots of the great debate to come.

The Two Economic Americas : For all the President's rhetoric about soaring national success and prosperity, a large part of the country isn't participating. I'll leave the typical litany about unemployed teen-agers, single mothers and impoverished minorities to liberals. Many conservative states and constituencies are in trouble, too. Collapsing commodity prices, land values and incomes have brought heartbreak to the Farm Belt. Substantial parts of Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas verge on depression. Plummeting petroleum prices have been collapsing confidence in the oil states--Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Wyoming. And because coal is already a disaster area, add West Virginia. Similarly, the mining areas of the Rocky Mountain states. And timber regions of the Pacific Northwest.

Basic industries are also depressed. Large chunks of the Southeast are suffering with the textile industry. Parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania are as gloomy as their closed steel mills. Indeed, Albert Sindlinger reports that his polling shows 28 of the 50 states to be in recession.

Yuppie and even Rotarian America probably cheered the President's commitment to cut back government so that go-getters and entrepreneurs can make their pile. But in the roughly half of the country where the local economy is slumping, the President's proposed domestic budget cutbacks raise the gruesome prospect of making hard times worse. The way these regions are being ignored is distressingly reminiscent of how 1920s policy-makers shrugged off similar regional agonies 60 years ago.

Economic Darwinism and the Proper Role of Government : Over the last 15 months or so, it has become clear that Ronald Reagan has a vision of America that he didn't submit to the electorate in 1984. Take defense. More is involved than strengthening the military after the hand-wringing era of Jimmy Carter and the Democrats. One reason Reagan wants to channel a growing share of government's resources into the Pentagon is that he regards defense as one of the few legitimate areas of government.

Does the public agree? Clearly not. Moreover, the President has also lost the support of many congressional Republicans who say, yes, we do have to increase defense spending, but we need a tax boost so that we won't undercut government's other valid functions. So this year's budget wrangling must inevitably focus discussion on Reagan's underlying thesis: Government's role should be limited to defense, law enforcement and the like, with economics left to the marketplace.

It amounts to a kind of Darwinism--a survival of the fittest. Workers and industries that can't make it without government assistance shouldn't make it. Farmers must live or die in the free market. Corporate raiders like T. Boone Pickens and Carl C. Icahn perform a social and economic service by weeding out the weak--like wolves in the forest. Top tax brackets should be slashed to get government out of the way of the productive. Federal economic and social support programs should be stripped away.

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