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THE NATION : The 'Uh-Oh Factor': When Political Leaders Go Too Far : Is the 'contract with America' solving problems that don't exist? There are better ways to fix a leak in the basement than blowing up the house.

March 26, 1995|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — If the Republicans aren't careful, the "contract with America" could become the health-care reform of 1995. They're making the same mistake the Democrats did. It's called overreaching.

Health care was one of the voters' top concerns in 1992. And it was one of the main reasons Bill Clinton got elected. As President, Clinton turned the problem over to a 500-person task force. They produced a 1,410-page report aimed at overhauling the nation's health-care system. It looked like something invented by Gyro Gearloose.

"Uh-oh," the voters said. "This wasn't what we meant by health-care reform." The vast majority of middle-class people are satisfied with their health care and their health insurance. All they wanted was cost controls and guaranteed access. Instead, the Administration threatened to take away what they already had, turn it over to the government and then give it back to them.

The public was horrified. It was like finding a leak in the basement and deciding the best way to fix it is to blow up the house. Health-care reform was a non-starter. The only thing that came out of it was a monumental political disaster for the Democrats.

And guess what? Health-care reform is still a top concern of voters in 1995.

Now look at what the Republicans are doing. They got elected because they said they could solve the nation's problems with less government. Fine, the voters said. How about tackling welfare and crime and jobs and political reform and the deficit? And don't forget health care.

The "contract with America" promises to do most of those things. And more. Much more. Like restructuring entitlement programs, changing the legal system and the regulatory process, eliminating the national-service program, slashing transportation subsidies, reorganizing Medicare, de-funding the arts and public broadcasting and eliminating whole areas of federal responsibility such as education, housing and energy policy. And delivering a nice big tax cut to boot.

"Uh-oh," voters are saying. "This isn't what we mean by solving problems." Why is the GOP trying to change the school-lunch program? And cut loans to college students? And weaken the Clean Air Act? And shut down Amtrak and PBS? And build a "Star Wars" defense system? Those sound like solutions for which there are no known problems.

Last week, one poll asked Americans which worries them more: that the Republicans will go too far in helping the rich and cutting needed services, or that the Democrats will go too far in keeping costly and wasteful government programs? Almost twice as many people were worried that the GOP would go too far. The Big Uh-Oh has set in.

The contract is in trouble because Republicans are overreaching. They can't keep their hands off the school-lunch program. Or environmental protection. Or public broadcasting. They're talking about "fundamentally restructuring" Medicare. Those kinds of programs have two things in common. One, they benefit everybody. Two, they work.

So why would Republicans want to fool around with them? For the same reason people thought Democrats wanted to fool around with health care--ideology.

Ideologues believe if something is right, it has to work, even if it doesn't work. To a lot of Americans, that description fit Clinton's health-care czar, Ira Magaziner. And maybe the health-care czarina, Hillary Rodham Clinton. They seemed like ideological zealots who believe in big government. Given a chance to fix the health-care system, they decided to let government take it over.

Actually, the reason Clinton allowed that to happen had nothing to do with ideology. It had to do with practicality. The President argued that insurance reform couldn't work without universal coverage. If you guarantee everyone the right to buy insurance, you have to force everyone to buy insurance. Otherwise, the young and the healthy won't pay, and the old and the sick will drive up the cost.

The simplest way to get universal coverage is to have the government run the health-care system. The President rejected that idea. Too radical. So they came up with an elaborate contraption that no one understood.

Poor Clinton. He tried to be practical and ended up being called a Bolshevik.

The same kind of suspicion is growing about House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Is he really a practical man who wants to solve problems? Or is he a wild-eyed zealot whose aim is to smash the system and grab power? He seems to be driven by pure ideological hatred of government. If government is wrong, nothing it does can possibly work, even if it does work.

Americans are pragmatists. The golden rule of pragmatism is: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Clinton violated that rule last year when he tried to fix what wasn't broken in the health-care system. Gingrich is violating it this year with his attacks on Medicare, public broadcasting and environmental protection. Ideologues can't resist the temptation not to leave well enough alone.

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