Real Debate Drowned in Blame

JOHN ADAMS once wrote that liberty cannot be preserved unless the people have a right ''to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.''

At the beginning of 1996, we in the United States have full knowledge of the conduct of our rulers. It's been on display since the budget talks recessed (or reached deadlock) Dec. 10. We are led by politicians who have substituted exercises in blame for traditional policy arguments between two parties.

Blame, in its proper employment, seeks to fix responsibility for failure, disaster, or wrongdoing. In the matter of the budget neither failure, disaster, nor wrongdoing has occurred.

But the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress are throwing blame anyway, accusing each other of wicked intentions. That was a political sin during the Spanish Inquisition, but it isn't now.

President Clinton and his spokesmen claim that mean-spirited Republicans want to reduce Medicare. Untrue - they want to cut the rate of Medicare's growth. The Republicans portray Democrats in general and Mr. Clinton in particular as fiscal profligates addicted to spending money on programs that don't work - which is egregious piffle.

Blame is the canticle of the intellectually or politically bankrupt. If I no longer know what I believe, I savage you for what you presumably do believe. This is disturbing, this impression that genuine political conviction is in meltdown under the pressures of an election year, of two major parties profoundly divided within themselves.

Blame is also the war cry of ideology. It is ironic that the most- and least-mature characters in the current squabble over the budget are on the Republican side. Sen. Bob Dole, the leading contender for his party's presidential nomination, gives notice of understanding that the issue really is the present imbalance between federal revenue and expenditure.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich's much heralded, frequently denounced shock troops - the gaggle of 73 House Republican freshmen - are, in this debate anyway, the least mature. They regard the budget issue as a device in their zeal for devolution - stripping the federal government of much of its powers and functions and returning them to the states. These eager evangelists for an idea whose origins lie in the differing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton at the end of the 18th century appear to be ideologues who lack the political sophistication to grasp the immediacy of the budget dilemma. Mr. Gingrich doesn't seem to be able to guide or control them any longer.

Blame is the polemic roar that deafens us to fundamental truths.

If they could see themselves in another light, both the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties might understand that they complement each other under two political traditions.

For more than half a century the government has been a social activist, with programs ranging from Social Security and Aid to Families With Dependent Children to Medicare, Medicaid, and dozens of other entitlements. Such social activism is a Democratic tradition. The time has long since passed when it could be dispensed with entirely.

Since the 1920s Republicans have made fiscal restraint their own tradition - with a balanced budget as their ultimate objective.

Combine these two traditions under ideal political conditions and you have a socially activist (among other things) federal government operating within its means - restraint enforced by Republican fiscal policy after serious political debate.

But first the blaming has to stop.

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