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Amid the Mess, It's the Same Ol' Same Ol'

November 16, 2000|ROBERT B. REICH | Former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich is a professor at Brandeis University. His next book, "The Future of Success" (Alfred A. Knopf), will be published in January

So who will be in charge of the most powerful nation on Earth come January? Neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore. The new center of power in Washington will lie with the moderates in both parties--liberal-leaning Republicans and conservative-leaning Democrats who together will be the only ones capable of setting Washington's agenda. A president will occupy the Oval Office, but he will be dependent on the approval of congressional moderates for almost anything he'd like to accomplish.

Forget George W.'s proposal to use much of the government's projected budget surplus for a large tax cut. The congressional moderates will whittle it down. Gore's proposals for an expensive new prescription-drug scheme for retirees and for a new government-subsidized savings plan on top of Social Security will be similarly downsized. In fact, you can safely forget most of what the presidential candidates proposed during their interminable campaigns. None of it matters any longer.

In the end, the moderates probably will cut the budget surplus into three approximately equal slices--one intended for a modest tax cut, the second dedicated to small spending increases for prescription drugs and health care and the third to pay down the nation's debt. This isn't the result that Bush or Gore campaigned for, but it's a balance that most Americans will be content with.

Foreign policy will be guided by the same moderate coalition in Congress. This means that the U.S. will continue to use its military muscle with great reluctance but feel no qualms about using its economic muscle unilaterally when the nation's economic interests are at stake. The White House and Congress will continue to back free trade while imposing duties on specific imports that undercut the prices of domestic producers. The Treasury, carefully overseen by Congress, will continue to tell the International Monetary Fund what to do. There will be scant support for foreign aid or debt relief for poor nations.

Meanwhile, economic policy will shift entirely to the Federal Reserve Board. Years ago, the economy's speed was regulated by two levers--one fiscal, run largely by the White House, and the other monetary, run by the Federal Reserve. But fiscal policy all but vanished when the Clinton administration resolved to reduce the nation's deficit. The government that takes control next January won't even remember where the fiscal lever can be found. Thus will Alan Greenspan, the Fed's powerful chairman, be in complete charge of the nation's economy and, indirectly, of the global economy.

Power to resolve any particularly controversial public issue will shift to the federal courts. The weakened political branches will be neither willing nor able to deal with touchy questions involving privacy, abortion, affirmative action or the rights of employees or people with disabilities. Nor will Congress or the White House be capable of determining the new contours of property rights in patents, copyrights and trademarks--hot issues in a new economy in which ideas are often more valuable than physical assets. It's worth noting, by the way, that any new nominee to the bench will need to be acceptable to the congressional moderates, who will block potential judges espousing extreme views about the Constitution.

Most important, no large-scale initiative will emanate from the White House or Congress. No large vision will be advanced calling upon the American people to alter the way they conduct their lives or understand the world. The president will not be able to summon the public's resolve for such things, and the congressional moderates will lack the authority to do so.

Hence, the looming financial problems of giant U.S. retirement programs, Social Security and Medicare will remain unaddressed. Global warming and related environmental hazards will receive scant attention. The national disgraces of child poverty, homelessness and hunger will endure. And inequalities of income and wealth--both inside the U.S. and around the world--will likely grow wider.

For good or ill, this is the government that most Americans now want. Despite the petulance of this unusual election, there is no great ideological divide. Whoever emerges as president will be part of a government that reflects the values of the great majority of American voters. In effect, they sought a third Clinton term, minus Bill Clinton, and that's what they will get. The wonder of American democracy is how well it works.

But is this the government that the nation most needs? It is of course possible that the economy will stay the course, that Greenspan will successfully extend the current expansion for several years and that no international crisis will intrude directly into the lives of most Americans.

Yet a steady state cannot be guaranteed. And if this most fortunate era of relative prosperity and relative peace should come to an abrupt end, the country may not be prepared to cope. Last week, this nation chose the status quo. But it may come to discover that it does not really have that option.

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