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When Both Parties Agree to a Weakened Washington : Government: The public distrusts big federal programs but wants big solutions to social ills. That contradiction could be the issue of the '90s.

February 25, 1990|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times

George Bush, who has spent his career shuttling between elected and appointed office, does not hate government any more than a carpenter hates wood. Unlike his predecessor, Bush does not consider the phrase "government service" an oxymoron.

Yet Bush's proposals for the use of the federal government remain thin. His programs, like his public appearances, are characterized by modesty. On drugs and education, his top domestic concerns, he has committed more words than dollars--and instead pressed the states for greater investments. At every opportunity Bush encourages private actions.

Liberals hear these pleas and say Bush lacks an agenda. Some Republicans agree. But other conservative strategists maintain the very modesty of Bush's pursuits may hold a key to his success. In his suspicion of sweeping government initiatives, they argue, Bush is in tune with the fundamental trend of the times--a withering of the power of centralized governments in a decentralizing world.

"Bush has taken a skeptical position toward new programs, public investment, and microeconomic management," said Hudson Institute President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., a top GOP strategist. "His detractors would say he doesn't have much of a program; I suppose that's another way of saying he realizes there are limits to what government can do."

To Daniels and other conservative thinkers, the deficit is only the most visible constraint binding the federal government. They see far larger forces limiting not only our government but all governments: rapid international capital flows that reduce any nation's ability to control its economic destiny; a growing emphasis on the private sector, plus explosive technological change in computers and communications that provide individuals with more powerful tools to challenge centralized authority.

"American government, along with central governments everywhere, is in decline versus private institutions, private individuals, private decision making," Daniels argued in a speech last fall.

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe stands as the most vivid testament. But there's no question that even in the United States, the federal government's maneuvers now strike many voters as muffled reports from a distant front. In policy circles, too, Washington seems less relevant--even in the Democratic Party, where support of a powerful central government had been an article of faith since the New Deal. Twenty-five years ago, the brightest young Democratic activists--believing the states incapable of solving social problems--sought to federalize responsibility for eradicating poverty and inequality with the Great Society. Today, the brightest young Democratic activists are more likely grappling with those problems in the states than debating them in Washington.

For many of these young Democrats, waiting for guidance from the capital makes as much sense as sending oil tanker crews to learn safety techniques from Exxon. "We are in a situation now, where . . . Washington is less and less capable of solving social problems, as we thought in the 1960s, by ginning up a big federal program," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank founded by centrist Democrats. Instead, Marshall says, Washington's new role may be to disseminate ideas generated in the states.

Citing such apostasy in the Democratic flock, James P. Pinkerton, a young aide in the White House policy planning office, recently argued that forward-looking analysts in both parties are drifting toward an "emerging national consensus," that they are rejecting "the false assumption that experts . . . could somehow administer prosperity and equality from an office building somewhere (in Washington)." Replacing that frayed consensus, Pinkerton contended in a speech earlier this month, is a "new paradigm" that stresses decentralized solutions tailored to local conditions, individual choice and pragmatism.

To Pinkerton, Bush's enormous popularity can be explained largely because he is far more aligned with those trends than traditional Democrats who still define the party's image. Yet in this atmosphere of change, both parties are demonstrably uncertain about where to draw the line between public and private responsibility.

Republicans have clear rules on economic issues: toward limiting the role of government, minimizing taxes and encouraging voluntary solutions to public problems. But the GOP social agenda cracks against those convictions by agitating for government control over the intensely personal decision of abortion. If the "new paradigm is characterized by increasing individual choice," as Pinkerton said in his speech, Bush's opposition to choice on abortion places him in the old government-knows-what's-best camp.

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