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In defense of government : the fall and rise of public trust /
Jacob Weisberg.
New York : Scribner, c1996.
209 p. ; 21 cm.
More Details
New York : Scribner, c1996.
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


It cannot have escaped those who have attended with candor to the arguments employed against the extensive powers of the government, that the authors of them have very little considered how far these powers were necessary means of attaining a necessary end. They have chosen rather to dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power or trust of which beneficial use can be made. This method of handling the subject cannot impose on the good sense of the people of America. -- JAMES MADISON, The Federalist, No. 41, 1788

REJECTION OF big government is the most powerful political sentiment in the land, and only the Republicans are responding to it," Congressman Dick Armey wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in August 1994. At the time, his words attracted no attention whatsoever. The conventional wisdom had Republicans picking up a couple of dozen seats as a result of Bill Clinton's unpopularity, but certainly not winning control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. Armey himself, a burly, voluble professor of economics from North Texas State University, was hardly at figure to be reckoned with. Best known in the early part of his career for trying to save money by sleeping on a cot in the House gym, he continued to bear the disheveled look of someone who did. Among journalists covering Capitol Hill, Armey's antifederal fulminations were taken about as seriously as calls for the legalization of drugs or the reimposition of the gold standard. The Almanac of American Politics said he was "hardly likely to be a power in the House." Even his Republican colleagues tended to roll their eyes at his rants.

Everyone knows, of course, what happened three months later. The Republicans overran Capitol Hill after winning solid majorities in both the House and the Senate. Democrats lost control of committees theirs since 1954. Elevator operators under their patronage went looking for new work. The taxpayer subsidized barbershop was shut down. Republicans were suddenly free to sleep wherever they pleased. Whole delegations flipped, such as that of the state of Washington, which went from 8--1 Democratic to 7--2 Republican. The defection of southern Democrats, a movement thought by some to have ended with Clinton's election in 1992, resumed with a vengeance.

The Clinton agenda, which consisted for the most part of creating new federal programs, became a dead letter overnight. New Gingrich's Contract with America took its place. It consisted of ten promises--to Republicans the new Ten Commandments. Armey was suddenly majority leader. Voting for him were seventy-three new Republican members, many of them political novices unknown beyond their own districts. One was a former homeless man from Texas, another a self-described former cocaine addict from Tennessee, another a semi-employed lawyer from Chicago who quadrupled his salary when he defeated Dan Rotenkowski, the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who just a few years before was deemed invincible.

How had Democrats failed to see what was coming? It was apparent, at the very least, from polls. Asked in May 1994, "When the government in Washington decides to solve a problem, how much confidence do you have that the problem will be solved?" just 4 percent of respondents said, "a lot." Of the 64 percent who said "none at all" or "just a little," better than a 3--1 majority said the reason was that "government is incompetent," not that "those problems are often difficult to solve." On almost every question that the public opinion profession has devised to measure confidence in government, a similar disenchantment surfaces. Sixty-nine percent think the federal government creates more problems than it solves. Seventy percent agree that when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful. The same 70 percent are dissatisfied with "the overall performance of the national government of the United States." And so on.

The midterm election of 1994 was a period marker, indicating the end of the New Deal and the beginning of a new chapter in American politics. It not only changed the view of the future but also radically altered interpretation of the recent past. The new guiding principle was distaste for government. After the election, this dissatisfactionturned to truculence punctuated by bursts of absurdity. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for instance, a Democratic official announced his plan to drop the word government from official usage. It was, he said, "off-putting" and "arrogant."

In Congress, the tone was set by the Republican freshmen, a claque so ferociously antigovernment that they made Armey himself look like a thoughtful moderate. Stylistically, class members owed something to their least favorite decade, the 1960s. They had a strong taste for stunts and guerrilla theater, albeit with a narrower imaginative range. Radical chic was now a conservative phenomenon. When the Senate was deliberating the balanced budget amendment, the House freshmen marched across Capitol Hill in an attempt to put pressure on the upper chamber. In their private planning conclave, one member suggested that they bring live chickens to show their contempt for the Menshevik faction of their party.

The radicals of the new Congress took to the House floor to deliver rant upon rant against "Washington," "the welfare state," and the world "inside the Beltway." Attacking "big government" and "bureaucrats" became for Republicans what "flower power" and "stop the war" had been twenty-five years earlier. On C-SPAN, fresh-faced apparatchiks like George Radanovich of California lamented that their districts paid more in taxes than they got back in federal spending--as if the government had no legitimate function at all, not even defending our borders. During the debate over term limits, an early defining episode, young Republicans scoffed at their elders with Letter-manesque sarcasm. Why was it so important to have experienced legislators? Mark Sanford from North Carolina wondered. "It's not like we're dealing with brain surgery," he sneered. At their worst (something they were at frequently), the new arrivals seemed like pod-people: cadres programmed for a mission to search and destroy. They made even the Reagan Robots, the freshmen elected in the Republican sweep of 1980, seem soft on liberalism.

The goal of these radicals was and remains, quite simply, the one Armey asserted: to strip the federal government of the functions it has taken on over the past ninety years. In some cases they argue for dispensing with responsibilities that have gone unquestioned since the early days of the Republic, such as the patent office and the postal system. If the Constitution proves an obstruction, they have few qualms about changing it. Some of the newcomers have signed on to as many as a half-dozen constitutional amendments, not just the conservative staples like banning abortion, allowing prayer in schools, and balancing the budget, but also more extreme ones, like requiring a supermajority for tax increases, letting states set their own term limits for federal officeholders, and removing First Amendment protection for flag burning.

At the feverish frontier of the elective right there has appeared a new breed of states'-rights zealot who truly sees the federalgovernment as a malevolent force. Unlike the old southern variety of antifederalists concerned with preserving the traditional prerogatives of race, these are mostly westerners obsessed with federal efforts to regulate the private ownership of firearms and control the use of public lands. Steve Stockman of Texas has written that the attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco was part of a government conspiracy to justify gun control. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, whose campaign was supported by her state's "militia" organization, sponsored a bill she called the Civil Rights Act of 1995; it would require federal authorities to obtain permission from local sheriffs before conducting searches or even carrying weapons. Her response to the Oklahoma City bombing was to assert that the country needed to "look at the public policies that may be pushing people too far."

To an alarming degree, such far-right paranoia has infected mainstream Republican politics. Before the bombing, in February 1995, Rush Limbaugh, perhaps America's most popular conservative, remarked, "The second violent American revolution is just about--I got my fingers about a fourth of an inch apart--is just about that far away. Because these people are sick and tired of a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington driving into town and telling them what they can and can't do." Such rhetoric used to be the province of southern populists defending segregation. Now even softhearted old moderates in the G.O.P. have glommed on to the antigovernment theme. "I think people feel government has grown too large, too centralized, too dictatorial," said William Roth, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Roth is mumbly and barely conscious in hearings, mortis without the rigor. For him to have caught the fever indicates the virulence of the virus. Another born-again zealot is Pete Wilson, the governor of California, notorious among conservatives for raising taxes early in his term. Announcing what proved to be a rather brief presidential candidacy, Wilson said: "California will not submit its destiny to faceless federal bureaucrats, or even congressional barons. We declare to Washington that California is a proud and sovereign state, not a colony of the federal government." A century or so earlier, such talk would have meant civil war.

Perhaps the most abrupt transformation was Bob Dole's. To true-blue conservatives, Dole is an infamous squish, one who has voted regularly not only for tax increases but for regulatory juggernauts like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1990. Newt Gingrich once famously excoriated him as "the tax collector of the welfare state." After the 1994 election, however, Dole was like a tardy commuter chasing after a train as it pulls away from the station. As a presidential candidate, he has become a devotee of the Tenth Amendment, a copy of which he pulls from his pocket and reads at rallies: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states...." His announcement speech developed this theme. "My mandate as president would be to rein in the federal government in order to set free the spirit of the American people," Dole told the crowd in his hometown of Russell, Kansas, in April 1995. "Reining in government,reining In government--it resonates with people out there," he told the Washington Times. Like George Bush before him, Dole has an amusing tendency to read not only his lines but the stage directions as well.

Dole's rival, Phil Gramm, meanwhile, needed no prompting. The 1994 election merely liberated him to sound as ferociously antigovernment as he really is. If most Republicans view taxation as excessive, Gramm goes them one better: he casts it as arbitrary confiscation. "We are one step away," he said in the announcement of his unsuccessful presidential candidacy, "from getting our money back." In another early campaign speech, Gramm compared Dole to Neville Chamberlain for having expressed willingness to work with the Clintons on health care reform. When Britain "decided to. . . stand up to the Nazis, they didn't turn to somebody who was yesterday for appeasement," he told an Iowa audience. In a bellicose mood, Ronald Reagan might discuss the commonalities between big government liberalism and communism. It took Gramm to liken Clinton to Hitler.

Such talk became muted for a time after April 21, when it became evident that the murder of 166 people in Oklahoma City was the work of antigovernment fanatics. The Republicans were caught in the awkward position of having loudly cursed a neighbor who suddenly drops dead. Those who casually blamed immorality on the influence of Hollywood were unwilling to concede their rhetoric might have encouraged the right's violent fringe, but they piped down. Examples of antigovernment hysteria were scarcer for a time, and intemperate remarks drew stiff criticism from Democrats and even from a few moderate Republicans. Still, the underlying sentiment remained the same. According to a May 1995 poll by the Gallup organization, 39 percent of respondents agreed that the federal government "has become so large and powerful it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens." Within a few months of the bombing, the verbal aggression of the Republicans returned. By late summer, House Whip Tom DeLay, a former exterminator and antiregulatory fanatic, was back on the floor calling EPA officials "Gestapo."

The Antifederalist Society

Suspicion of concentrated government power is one of the great motifs of American political history. We fought our revolution against it. Independence, however, invited the opposite problem: a national government that was too weak to function effectively. In strengthening it, the framers of the Constitution strove to avoid creating a government that could become too strong; their primary preoccupation was the abuse of power, whether by an ambitious executive or a popular majority. The antifederalists who opposed the Constitution argued that extension of national authority would lead inextricably to abuse. Any power greater than that authorized by the Articles of Confederation would degenerate into monarchy, despotism, and tyranny. "What compensation then are you to receive in return for the libertiesand privileges belonging to yourselves and posterity, that you are now about to sacrifice at the altar of this monster, this Colossus of despotism?" asked the antifederalist writer "Philadelphiensis" in the Freeman's Journal in 1787.

In the heated Virginia ratifying convention of the following year, the leading statesmen expressed only slightly milder versions of this revulsion. One of the strongest opponents of "consolidation" was the revolutionary hero Patrick Henry. "If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together. There will be no real checks, no real balances, in this government," he declaimed. George Mason, who had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention but refused to sign the document, raised his own strong objection: "The very idea of converting what was formerly a confederation to a consolidated government is totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us."

Mason struck a popular chord when he objected in particular to giving the federal government the power to lay taxes. In parts of the country, the prerevolutionary discontent with unrepresented taxation rapidly transformed itself into an objection to taxation per se. The most virulent expression of this sentiment was the Whiskey Rebellion, a violent revolt in the backcountry of Pennsylvania against a new federal excise tax. The slogan of the whiskey rebels might have been No New Taxes; they wanted to take back their country from out-of-touch, free-spending Washington bureaucrats. "Their detestation of the excise law is now universal, and has now associated to it a detestation of the government," Thomas Jefferson wrote Madison after receiving a report of the rebellion. The Alleghenies raged until President Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton appeared on the scene with fifteen thousand troops to quell the uprising.

In the early years of the Republic, Jefferson was the most eloquent critic of expanding federal power. Initially he was ambivalent about the powers given to the government by the framers, but after ratification of the Constitution, he became a strict constructionist. The federal government was fine so long as it remained limited to the powers enumerated in Article One. Jefferson consequently opposed Hamilton's sponsorship of the First Bank of the United States. "To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition," he wrote in t79t.

The Sedition Act of 1798 substantiated Jefferson's fears. Created to deal with conspiracies against the government, it made defamation of Congress or the president a crime. With requisite hyperbole, Jeffersonian Republicans called the latter years of the John Adams administration the "Federalist Reign of Terror." Jefferson himself ghost-wrote the set of resolutions that the Kentucky state legislature passed to indicate its displeasure with thelaw. He argued strenuously that the Sedition Act was unconstitutional, even going so far as to assert that states were not legally bound by it. Madison made a similar argument as the unnamed author of the Virginia Resolutions. These claims were never tested; the issue of whether states could declare a federal law unconstitutional was made moot by the expiration of the Sedition Act in 1800 and by Jefferson's election to the presidency the same year. But after Chief Justice Marshall arrogated for the Supreme Court the right to decide what was and wasn't constitutional, in Marbury v. Madison, Jefferson became worried about the growing power of the judiciary. He later called the Supreme Court a "corps of sappers and miners, steadily working to undermine the independent rights of the states, and to consolidate all power in the hands of the government."

Jefferson's concerns were many. He feared the moral hazards of a large bureaucracy and a well-funded treasury. "What an augmentation of the field for jobbing, speculating, plundering, office-building and office-hunting would be produced by an assumption of all the state powers into the hand of the general government!" Jefferson wrote to his political ally Gideon Granger in 1800. "The true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best, that the states are independent as to everything within themselves and united as to everything respecting foreign nations. Let the general government be reduced to foreign concerns only. One of Jefferson's first acts as president in 1801 was to repeal the national estate and property taxes that had been imposed a few years earlier. Limited government, he theorized, could easily be undermined by bountiful resources.

By his actions as president, however, Jefferson recognized that there were demands on government that the minimalist state could not easily handle, and so the federal government grew. In 1803 he doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. But the Jeffersonian persuasion continued to serve groups and classes of people who feared government for a wide variety of reasons. In the Jacksonian era, the high-minded, strict constructionist view of the Constitution was taken up by southern planters whose livelihood was threatened by federal tariffs on imported goods. "Who are the true friends of the Union?" Robert Hayne of South Carolina asked in an 1830 Senate speech. "Those who would confine the Federal government strictly within the limits prescribed by the Constitution," he answered, "who would preserve to the states and the people all powers not expressly delegated; who would make this a federal and not a national union." John C. Calhoun, then vice president to Andrew Jackson, espoused the doctrine of "nullification." This was a revival of the notion Jefferson and Madison had flirted with in the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798: states could refuse to allow the enforcement of laws they deemed unconstitutional. South Carolina, which led the revolt, backed down only under Jackson's threat to use federal force.

But Jackson himself fretted over the expanding functions of the federal government. In 1830 he vetoed a bill passed by Congressto build the Maysville road in Kentucky. Jackson's theory was that federal sponsorship of internal improvements" of local rather than national import were not permitted by the Constitution. (Henry Clay, who represented Kentucky in the Senate, pointed out that Jackson had supported other such projects when it suited his own political purposes.) One finds the Jeffersonian view of the Constitution again in Jackson's 1832 veto of the recharter of the Bank of the United States. Jackson thought the central bank had created opportunity for those with the greatest economic power to take advantage of the federal government. "It is to be regretted," he thundered in his veto message, "that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes."

The Democratic platform of 1840, the first such national party document, begins with the words: "Resolved, That the federal government is one of limited powers...." The rest of the brief statement delineates what government can't do: carry out internal improvements, assume the debts of states, charter a national bank, or interfere with slavery. In 1860 the Republicans, in their own first platform, sounded a similar note: "Resolved . . . That the people justly view with alarm the reckless extravagance which pervades every department of the Federal Government; that a turn to rigid economy and accountability is indispensable to arrest the systematic plunder of the public treasury by favored partisans."

Though the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution put an end to the most expansive view of states' rights, they did not squelch objections to the growth of Washington's authority. Democrats objected that the martial powers adopted by President Lincoln during the war were inimical to the Constitution. Radicals of Lincoln's own party argued that his pocket veto of the Wade-Davis bill, which prescribed harsh terms for southern readmission to the union, was an act of executive tyranny. Though the size and the cost of government grew with the expansion of veterans' pensions and widows' benefits after the war, neither party wished to claim the mantle of big government. Each divvied up spoils and sinecures among its partisans when in power. And each, when out of power, accused the other of usurping local responsibilities, overspending, and plundering the Treasury for the sake of patronage.

Cynicism about government was never more prevalent, and never more justified, than during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. American politics was more corrupt than ever before. Bribery was practiced with guiltless impunity; one congressman in 1873 described the House of Representatives as an auction room "where snore valuable considerations were disposed of under the speaker's hammer than in any other place on earth." After Benjamin Harrison was elected president in 1888, he was appalled to discover that he could not even choose his own cabinet, since Republican Party leaders had already sold off all of the best positions to get him elected. These spoilsmen of the Gilded Age spawned a genre of antigovernment humor we still endure today. "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress," Mark Twain remarked in Following the Equator (1897). Modifying Twain's crack, Ambrose Bierce defined politics in his Devils Dictionary (1906) as "a means of livelihood affected by the more degraded portion of our criminal class."

After the reforms of the Progressive era cleared away the most blatant forms of corruption, popular suspicion of politicians assumed milder forms. The antigovernment jokes of the 19205 were, by comparison to previous decades, gentle, even affectionate. Politicians weren't corrupt, they were just a bit wacky. Thus most of the humor of Will Rogers, and Irwin S. Cobb's remark, "If I wanted to go crazy I would do it in Washington because it would not be noticed." To the extent the parties differed in their conceptions of government, the roles to which we are now accustomed were reversed. Republicans, who controlled the presidency for fifty-six of the seventy-two years between 1860 and 1932, were by virtue of winning elections the party of the federal government. Democrats were the party of states' rights. The fairly characteristic Democratic platform of 1924 condemned the G.O.P for its "centralizing and destructive tendencies" and denounced the Coolidge administration for its "extension of bureaucracy." Even Franklin D. Roosevelt worked this vein, complaining in the 1932 campaign about Herbert Hoover's irresponsible failure to balance the federal budget.

This situation was permanently reversed with the New Deal. Conservatives depicted Roosevelt's program not just as an unconstitutional usurpation of power but as an incipient totalitarian dictatorship. To Hoover, writing in his 1934 jeremiad The Challenge to Liberty, it was "the most stupendous invasion of the whole spirit of Liberty that the nation has witnessed since the days of Colonial America." Fear of expanding federal power was not confined to those the president called "economic royalists." As Alan Brinkley points out in his book Voices of Protest, the populists Father Coughlin and Huey Long railed against the growth of government through the Depression years, their attacks on big business and calls for the redistribution of wealth notwithstanding. "The very nature of its development makes inroads upon the rights of citizens; its ultimate goal is inevitably some type of tyranny," Coughlin said. Long described the new alphabet agencies as "contrary to the American system."

Throughout the Roosevelt-Truman years, Republicans maintained their position as opponents of expansive government. The Taft-Goldwater tradition in Republican politics was built around the call for repealing New Deal social programs like Social Security. "I fear Washington and centralized government more than I do Moscow," Goldwater said in 1960. Antigovernment Republicanism was, however, a largely inert force through most of the Cold War era; successful politicians tended to be those who recognized the consensus surrounding the New Deal welfare state. Deep antifederalist feeling did not return until the 1960s, when white southerners reached for a principle to assert against racial integration. In the person of George Wallace, the arguments of Hayne and Calhoun were reborn. In 1963 Wallace explained his attempt to block integration of the University of Alabama: "When I go to stand in the door, it is to raise dramatically the question of sovereignty of the state. It is raising a constitutional question.... Does the state of Alabama run its school system, or does the federal court and the Justice Department?" Appearing on Meet the Press a few days later, Wallace said of his obstructionism: "I think it is a dramatic way to impress upon the American people this omnipotent march of centralized government that is going to destroy the rights and freedom and liberty of the people of this country if it continues, and we in Alabama intend to resist this centralized control, where they now tell us whom you can eat with and whom you can sit down with and swim with and whom you can sell your house to."

Another old theme reemerged in the following decade: resistance to government's use of its taxing power. This upsurge commanded national attention as a result of Proposition 13, the California property tax limitation ballot initiative of 1978. But the movement was soon nationalized with the presidential campaign and victory of California's former governor Ronald Reagan. "Government is not the solution, it's the problem," Reagan famously declared in his 1981 inaugural address, putting the proposition in the most elemental terms possible. This notion was a staple of Reagan's public utterances, which ranged from his famous promise in his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter "to take government off the backs of the great people of this country," to one of his favorite jokes, "the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see is a government program," and his oft-repeated crack that the ten most frightening words in the English language are: "Hello, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Reagan located big-government liberalism on a continuum with totalitarian communism. "For some decades now, the liberal movement has worked to centralize government authority in Washington and to increase government's power.... We find the ultimate in government planning in the Soviet Union," he wrote before his election. "Runaway government threatens our economic survival, our most cherished institutions, and the very preservation of freedom itself," he said in 1982. In another speech Reagan described "government careening out of control, pushing us toward economic collapse, and quite probably the end of our way of life."

Revenge of the Gutless Herd

For all his brave talk, Reagan flinched when it came to confronting directly the size and scope of the federal government. His hyperbolic rhetoric camouflaged this reality, so much so that many liberals never realized that the "Reagan budget cuts" were mostly a figment of their own propaganda. "Despite the caterwauling about Reagan's supposedly savage budget cuts in 1981,not one major spending program was abolished during the Reagan presidency," writes the conservative critic David Frum in Dead Right. "Only one spending program of any size was done away with, and even that--the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act--was instantly replaced by another program, the lobs Partnership Training Act, meant to achieve almost exactly the same end." In fact, federal spending, figured as a share of Gross Domestic Product, grew from 20.7 percent in 1979 to 23.3 percent in 1992. But receipts rose more slowly than expenditures, resulting in the structural budget deficit we have lived with ever since, and of our 55 trillion national debt.

After he left the administration, Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, became a voluble critic of the Republican failure to take on the welfare state. In his book The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, Stockman portrayed Reagan as childlike in his incomprehension of the situation his administration faced. Reagan wanted to shrink the government but was outraged at the suggestion that people might bleed as a result. He thought the necessary downsizing could be accomplished by ferreting out waste and abuse, something he believed he had done as governor of California. (In reality he raised taxes and increased spending at a rate of 12 percent a year.) Reagan remained impervious to all efforts to dispel his illusions. An even greater object of Stockman's scorn was what he called the "gutless herd of self-proclaimed conservative politicians." It was this group, he argued, that doomed the effort to reverse the growth of the welfare state. These legislators had their noses too deep in the congressional pork barrel to remember their supposed disdain for big government. From his experience, Stockman concluded not just that the Reagan revolution had failed but that the project of shrinking the welfare state was once and forever an impossibility. Republicans simply weren't serious about it.

This analysis looked more trenchant than ever during the Bush years. For Reagan's successor, the attack on government was clearly just talk. Bush's natural tendency was governmental. He cooperated with Democrats in drafting new laws for environmental protection and civil rights; he boasted of spending increases on education, crime, and drugs. The last straw for many conservatives was when Bush broke a clear promise and agreed to a major tax increase in 1990. In his book, published in 1994, Frum drew from the Bush experience an even more pessimistic version of Stockman's lesson. Handouts were what made politicians popular. And Republican politicians, he argued, were too addicted to being popular to take their own ideas seriously.

Things did indeed appear bleak for the advocates of limited government during the Bush years. But Stockman and Frum were both excessively pessimistic--from their own point of view--in taking phoniness about slimming government to be the eternal purgatory of Republican politics. Partly in reaction to the Reagan-Bush failure, the antigovernment mood surged again, more powerfully than before. One could read it in the sort of political book published in the early nineties: The Government Racket: Washington Waste from A-Z, by Martin L. Gross ("The government in Washington is out of control--fiscally, morally, and philosophically.... Virtually everything Washington does lacks both intellect and practicality"); Adventures in Porkland: How Washington Wastes Your Money and Why They Won't Stop, by Brian Kelly ("It's outrageous. It has to stop. This isn't free molley, we know that. The guys who are giving us back our own molley and making us thankful for it are con men who need to be tossed onto the street"); and Club Fed, by Bill Thomas ("They are working together, working to keep their privileges, money, and power as long as they can"). All rather witless, but they testify to a national mood.

Antigovernment feeling, in various mutations, animated Ross Perot and the other "outsider" candidates of 1992. Bush's apostasy on the tax issue provoked Pat Buchanan to challenge him for the Republican nomination. Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown ran for the Democratic nomination on themes of deficit reduction and political reform. Bill Clinton defeated them in the primaries by co-opting much of thier rhetoric, promising "a government that works better and costs less." In so doing, Clinton also echoed Perot, who promised to stop the government from squandering money, to make it function more like a business, and to prevent profiteers from taking corrupt advantage of it.

To be sure, the mood was less than distinct in 1992. Voters were "angry," but it was less than clear what they were angry about: taxes, spending, their standard of living, crime, immigrants, a changing country, modern life--the expression was an inchoate roar. It was possible, for instance, to read Perot's rhetoric as a demand either for smaller government and lower taxes or for sharper and more pragmatic intervention on issues like declining wages. The 1991 recession created a groundswell of support for federal involvement on a range of issues, including unemployment, the decline of the public infrastructure, and health care, that contradicted the notion of a backlash against government.

This ambiguity allowed Clinton to fudge the issue. To the socalled New Democrats, he embodied the notion of a smaller and more efficient government, one that would rely more on private-sector solutions, reform the welfare system, and attack the deficit. To old Democrats, on the other hand, he represented a promise to deliver the largest missing piece of the New Deal welfare state, universal medical coverage, to expand other programs, and to reverse Reaganomics. It all blurred under the rubric of "change." After his election, Clinton was far more interested in creating new programs than in dismantling old ones. He handed off the task of downsizing and rationalizing bureaucracies to Vice President Al Gore, while focusing his own energies on devising the newest government benefit.

To propose such a costly, complicated new program as universal health insurance in the midst of a rebellion against government now appears an act of gross political negligence, a pointless escalation in a losing battle. But if Clinton was blind to the mood of reaction against government, Republicans were slow to recognize its dimensions as well. The original response of the party's congressional leadership to Clinton's health care initiative was that it would work with the White House to answer a crying need. The Republican political goal, at first, was simply to prevent Democrats from reaping all the credit for reform. To argue against any intervention was considered a futile, extremist position. Former defense secretary Richard Cheney, who in early 1994 contemplated a presidential bid, was mocked by conservative strategists for his poor judgment in suggesting there was no crisis sufficient to warrant federal action. It was only after the Clinton-Rodham-Magaziner plan failed, its demise spurred by an aggressive insurance industry propaganda effort, that Republicans began to take a more ideological stance against it. Not until after the 1994 election did they realize it had been a central factor In their victory.

After the election Clinton tried to convince everyone that he had been the one cutting government all along. "We have already eliminated or reduced three hundred programs," he boasted to Newsweek. Vice President Gore was given center stage for a new, reinvented "reinventing government" effort. Having figured out how to make government bureaus run better, Gore was now assigned to figure out how to get rid of them entirely. But if this barn-door closing was a bit belated, even less persuasive was Clinton's original 1996 budget proposal, which dropped the cause of deficit reduction altogether. Though big government was unpopular, Clinton reckoned shrinking it would be more unpopular still. He thought his own deficit reduction plan was what had sent him so low in the polls. On this logic, he decided to hang back and let the Republicans attack the deficit on their own.

Republicans had talked endlessly about cutting spending in the past but had never really done it. So, in early 1995, there was at least a plausible political argument for calling their bluff. But by assumming Republicans weren't serious, Clinton made a strategic error: he was refighting the previous war. This time it was different; the Republicans meant business, a point Clinton subsequently acknowledged by proposing a second 1996 budget with more significant cuts. Conservatives were no longer content to leave their assault on government at the level of rhetoric. John Kasich, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, made his point plainly after the election. If Republicans did not fulfill their promise to balance the budget, Americans would turn to a third party, he said, and be justified in doing so. In May, Kasich and his Senate counterpart, Pete Domenici, delivered budgets that did what had long been thought impossible. They spelled out specific cutbacks that would balance the budget by the year 2002. The House version cut enough to pay for several hundred billion dollars in tax cuts as well. The Republicans proposed a 30 percent reduction in domestic discretionary spending. In the fall, both houses passed an actual budget embodying these principles.

But it wasn't just a matter of budget balancing. In 1995 Republicans moved to give meaning to their old platitudes about federal power and states' rights. By turning established programs into block grants, they were attempting to alter fundamentally Washington's role in American life. It wasn't just a more modest version of the New Deal they were after. It was a return to the Jeffersonian conception of federalism, or at least a free-lunch Jeffersonianism in which Washington raises money and governors get to spend it.

After decades of posturing, conservatives were no longer just mouthing off against the federal government. They were trying to take it down. In the words of one impatient freshman, the time had finally come to "just do it." Today it is no longer possible to answer the Republican charge by pointing out that there isn't any cavalry. The barbarians are inside the gates. The assault is a reality.

Copyright © 1996 Jacob Weisberg. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1996-04-08:
In a thoughtful critique of the anti-big government sentiment that dominates U.S. political discourse, New York magazine political columnist Weisberg charges that Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and many fellow Republicans are "pseudolibertarians" who use the rhetoric of smaller government but generally support costly federal programs. The pseudolibertarians are "Reagan's true disciples," Weisberg declares, noting that during Reagan's administration, federal spending on social programs, education and agriculture substantially increased. A contributing editor to New Republic, Weisberg also blasts "reactionary liberal" Democrats (e.g., Mario Cuomo, Richard Gephardt) who, in his assessment, dodge the pressing need to balance the budget, revamp a deeply flawed welfare system and check uncontrolled Medicare costs. According to Weisberg, President Clinton fumbled his attempt to forge a new majority coalition when he abandoned his campaign call for a "New Covenant," meaning that government should enlarge opportunity rather than dispense benefits. Skeptical of government funding for the arts but hopeful that government can further broaden goals such as racial progress, Weisberg urges Democrats to return to the pragmatic approach of pre-New Deal Progressives such as New Republic founder Herbert Croly. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 1996-11-01:
Weisberg has two related objectives: to restore public trust in the US government by citing examples of successful public policies, and to defend a vision of limited, activist government against the slash and burn tactics of conservatives, the procedural reforms of technocratic moderates, and the ineffectual policies of traditional liberals. The author's examples of success are too few in number and presented unsystematically. Readers might consult John Schwarz, America's Hidden Success (CH, Feb'84), for a more persuasive account of positive public action. Weisberg's ideas about what government should do are not stated clearly until the last chapter, not justified in much depth, and do not connect well with the rest of the book. Much of it is a familiar review of Republican and Democratic party positions over the last two centuries, with emphasis on current divisions within and between each party. For similar accounts that are as well written and more insightful, see recent writings by fellow journalists E.J. Dionne Jr., Thomas Byrne Edsall, and Robert Kuttner. The lack of footnotes or endnotes makes it difficult to assess the adequacy of the evidence throughout. General readers and lower-division undergraduates. C. Howard College of William and Mary
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, April 1996
Choice, November 1996
Reference & Research Book News, November 1996
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