MotherJones SO93: Slow learners

On a summer visit to Washington, I sat in the gallery above the Senate chamber during the deficit-reduction-bill debate. Nothing either side said qualified as an honest idea. The Republicans accused the Democrats of being the tax-and-spend party. The Democrats countered by blaming the eighties on the party of protect-the-rich. The charts they used were simpleminded; the senators' delivery verged on the comic.

The Republicans clearly didn't mind when their counterproposals were defeated. They were united in the hope that the economy and presidency would sour so that they could be the party of we-told-you-so. But the Democrats didn't have faith in their own stripped-down deficit- reduction bill, either. When the roll was called on each amendment, the Democrats caucused to calculate that they controlled enough votes, then "released" an extra colleague or two to cross over to the so- called conservative side as a hedged political bet.

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Although both parties spoke in the name of fiscal prudence, their solemnity hid Washington's bipartisan big lie. The Treasury was emptied during the Republicans' watch, but the Democrats served as accomplices because Reagan's tax breaks benefited their wealthy patrons as well. Supply-side economics may have begun as self- delusion, but both sides of the aisle knew within a couple of years that they were spending much more than they were taking in and concealing their fraud by bankrupting the future.

No wonder then that senators mouth their lines like actors in a summer-stock production of a drawing-room murder mystery. They don't want anyone to take this play too seriously, lest a close examination of the body lead to an angry search for the criminals. That's also why Congress is bending over backward and forward to appease the drama critic named Perot.

President Clinton is trying to figure out how to appease both the Perot constituency and Congress. Because he doesn't have the stomach to preside as an outsider, yet initially staffed his White House with the nouveau arrogant, he was caught in a no-man's-land between populist anger and establishment ridicule. The press felt comfortable taking bites out of his popularity.

When entering the White House press room, one still smells the frustration of carnivores. Reporters who clawed their way to the tops of various news organizations find themselves caged in a set of small rooms, waiting for presidential handouts. Cleverly, David Gergen has brought modern management to the zoo, making the roaming area in the West Wing a bit wider and giving extra portions of news to the biggest cats.

On the day I visited, Clinton spoke to the nation's high school Presidential Scholars on the South Lawn. As the president strode to the stage on the swells of "Hail to the Chief," you could see why he's a man readily forgiven for his infidelities. He carries himself with openhearted charm. In the back of the minds of these gifted students and their proud parents must have been the oft-retold and rebroadcast moment when young Clinton shook President Kennedy's hand. And sure enough, he deftly connected an anecdote from his life to this occasion. Clinton instinctively knows how to touch everyone in his presence. Afterwards, he literally touched the hands of all the 139 young scholars present. The inspiring ceremony was marred slightly when he lingered to press flesh with the parents as well.

Credit Clinton for trying to connect with real people. But the political conversation he's begun goes on and on without deepening because he fears the political establishment. He tries to have everything both ways. He can't, however, reinvigorate Americans' faith in good government until he confronts the well-heeled, well-spoken thieves holed up in his town.

Later in the day, OMB Director Leon Panetta briefed White House reporters on the latest senatorial skirmish. His explanation of the national debt's origins invited serious queries, but the press only asked horse-race questions. How close was the next vote going to be? As soon as Panetta answered, another reporter asked about the vote after that, as if the assembled were handicappers for a daily tout sheet.

As I write, the fate of the deficit-reduction bill isn't known, but one can safely predict that whatever goes through (or doesn't) will be inadequate. Despite their adoption of this season's rhetoric, most Washingtonians don't want to understand why voters care about the deficit. Quite simply (and simplicity is Salesman Perot's appeal), Americans want to improve--cautiously--the government programs that work, and cut--ruthlessly--those that don't. They'll tolerate sacrifice, but only if the benefits to a shared future are clear.

Yet it's not in Washington's interest to reduce either the size of government or the eagerness of lobbyists to lubricate the federal machinery. As taxes rise and services decline, those in power will transform in the public's eye from middlemen to bagmen. Then, as in Italy and Japan, a scandal that begins relatively small (with Rostenkowski, say) is likely to spread. Revelations of hard and soft corruption will fuel a neopopulist rage bound to scorch Washington.

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