YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Grim Experiment : After the '64 election, the Democrats pushed the country too far left in creating the Great Society. Today, the GOP wants to pull America to the extreme right. Will they ever learn?

October 01, 1995|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Knopf). His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics" (Little Brown)

WASHINGTON — Ross Perot's surprise third-party announcement didn't come in time to block the new congressional agenda moving through Washington. The trouble is, the United States can't afford another reckless economic and social experiment in which the failed liberalism of the Great Society, the expensive naivete of the 1960s, gets replaced by a new Grim Society, the rightward overreaction of the 1990s.

"Conservative" isn't the right label here. Plans to gut Medicaid, cut Medicare, slash environmental regulation, recast the tax code toward Wall Street and Palm Desert and embark on a risky new approach to welfare aren't considered, careful and incremental. On the contrary, taken together, they are the stuff of radicalism--of ivory-tower planners, ideologues and second-rate professors (three in the congressional GOP leadership alone) ascended to positions of first-class power. Because intellectuals deal in abstractions, it's all too easy for them to slip into recklessness.

Tricky legislative procedures are a warning light. Agendas rushed through Congress, hurried so that ordinary voters do not have time to understand or protest, are almost always the excesses of special interests--not the sentiments of the grass roots. Last week's Medicare "reform" is a perfect example. Moreover, it's fitting to compare the current GOP Congress to the last session to produce so large a blizzard of supposedly reformist domestic legislation--the hyperactive, overwhelmingly liberal 89th Congress of 1965-66.

Both parties go too far, given half a chance. For both episodes prove the same point: Citizens must beware when zealots pretend that a negative election targeting an unpopular White House occupant or candidate was actually a mandate for their own accumulated domestic-policy daydreams.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and the hugely Democratic 89th did this 30 years ago, misinterpreting the defeat of 1964 GOP nominee Barry M. Goldwater as a mandate for piling up federal programs, experimenting with housing, education and welfare, seeking to end poverty almost overnight and paying for everything with printing presses and inflation instead of new taxes. Sociologists and "experts" had a field day, and even the two-to-one Democratic Congress passed some of the more extreme legislation by only two-vote margins. Finally, on Election Day, 1966, the voters rebelled, and the Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate.

The relevance is twofold. First, parts of this "Great Society," grown like Jack's beanstalk, are what we are now fighting over. Republicans are quite correct in saying many entitlements did get out of hand, fueling today's sky-high health costs and welfare outlays. However, just as the 1965-66 congressional surge of progressivism went beyond national support for dealing with the accumulated problems of civil rights, education, health and the environment, the right's "contract with America" orgy also goes beyond a reasonable correction of excessive government and regulation.

The unnerving parallels don't end with initial overreaction. Today's right-wing zealots seem just as eager as 1960s liberals to ignore voter worries that they're going too far--even as they twist the arms of unhappy senators and congressmen to ram legislation through in secrecy before voters can know what's going on. Last week's bloodletting on Medicare, with only one day of hearings and with critical dollar amounts and formulas withheld, follows similar covert procedures in the GOP Congress's regulatory overhaul and tort reform. Fear is also growing that these GOP back-room maneuvers are threatening the future of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Thirty years ago, the ambitious blue-printers were liberals in the Departments of Health, Education and Welfare and Housing and Urban Development, backstopped by academics, economists and consultants from dozens of think tanks, universities and institutes. Today, we have a new generation of overheated individuals--this time conservative--from a new crowd of universities and think tanks. They are now touting the merits of flat taxes and permissive business regulatory policies--free the Oil Spill Five and the Securities Fraud Seven--and just as eager to ennoble overprivileged speculators and corporate buccaneers as their 1960s liberal predecessors were to ennoble underprivileged welfare "clients" and muggers.

Los Angeles Times Articles