Suddenly, Washington is the guiding light

After years of denigration, the capital is called to tackle terrorism, save economy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a sudden shift, Washington is again the heart of the country.

For the past two decades, it was fashionable for politicians to campaign against the city that is the nation's capital. Washington was stifled by bureaucracy and was the home of busybodies and spendthrifts. Efficiency and clear vision resided in the provinces. And while Washington downsized the scope of government through everything from deregulation to welfare reform, the nation was lionizing Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

That vision no longer entirely holds. In a swift, dramatic change, a city that has seen its share of denigration is now called upon to lead the US in one of its most troubling hours.

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Now there's a dawning sense that today's actions here will ripple across the generations. And there's a new kinship with Franklin Roosevelt's vision of a muscular government protecting the nation and world - and a sense that Ronald Reagan's small-government ideal is, at this moment, simply not practical.

Only Washington is stepping up with a multibillion-dollar bailout for the airlines. Only Washington, perhaps, can restore public trust in airline security - by putting its agents at checkpoints and on planes. Washington is also clearly in charge of the new war on terror. And it may try to save the struggling economy with a big stimulus plan.

Yet some wonder if Washington is up to the task. Have the partisan battles of the past two decades - including the impeachment of a president - left deep wounds that sap the city's ability and agility? Also, is government ultimately the right player to tackle tough economic troubles?

Ready or not, however, "Washington is in," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Foreign policy has now been moved to the front burner again" - and as long as it stays that way, he says, Washington stays "in."

And it's given the governing class here a new sense of purpose. "Nobody is confused about the need for a federal government these days," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of California. "We don't need to be worried about ... whether we're needed anymore."

Big spending is back

She's part of a bipartisan group spearheading an airline-industry bailout. Without such aid, some airlines may shut down. Details are still being hammered out, but one plan from President Bush would give airlines $5 billion up front - and $3 billion to boost airport security. It would also limit airlines' liability for damage caused during last week's terror attacks.

This would follow the $40 billion already agreed to for initial rescue, recovery, and rebuilding efforts. And it's only part of an economic stimulus effort that's still being shaped. The package could include everything from a capital-gains tax cut to a quick rebate on payroll taxes to other new spending.

Furthermore, defense and intelligence budgets are expected to rise sharply in coming years.

It all flows out of a new attitude: No action is too costly if it will prevent terror or boost the economy - even though it may bring the return of deficit spending and mounting national debt.

Besides more spending, Washington is moving toward a bigger role in terror prevention and airline safety. There's the developing high-profile military offensive - Operation Infinite Justice - which will likely be a long-term effort to halt terror. There are also discussions about boosting law-enforcement's ability to combat terrorism domestically. This could include the ability to seize billing information or tap into computers without a court order - which would raise civil-liberties concerns.

Also, there's growing support for federalizing airport security - or at least adding measures like armed federal marshals on airplanes. All these measures signal a bigger role for Washington.

Most agree desperate circumstances require dramatic action, but some economists worry that a spend-heavy Washington will lose the steely fiscal discipline it developed over the past decade - and that this could harm future economic growth.

Understandably, "there's a groundswell to do something generous - and the purse strings are open," says Richard DeKaser, chief economist for National City Bank in Cleveland. But if not halted after a few months, "This risks being the camel's nose under the tent," he says.

Already, bond markets have responded to the threat of deficit spending by pushing up long-term interest rates - which could bring, for instance, higher home-mortgage rates.

Farewell to partisan bickering

But this hasn't broken the parties' unity on the need to spend - at least in the short term - to solve current crises. To be sure, major philosophical divides still exist. But the parties are intent - in a way not seen for decades - on forging common ground and moving forward.

"If a big dispute can't be resolved behind closed doors, there will be very little desire to move it to the floor of the House or Senate," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute here.

That attitude, he says, reflects the fast-changing political reality - to which politicians are very good at adapting. "They realize the American people have no stomach for partisanship," he says. So, it's "either their goodwill - or their political instincts - that tell them they need to learn to get along." This will help heal partisan wounds from recent years.

Yet some argue that debate - even if partisan - is crucial to winning Washington's new battles. "We seem to have forgotten Vietnam too quickly," says historian Arthur Schlesinger, referring to the country's mostly unquestioning acceptance of President Johnson's escalation in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. "You have to convince the country" - through a public airing of ideas - "that this is the right direction to go."

In the end, though, only Washington can play this role. "Without a strong central government," he says, "we don't know which direction the country is going."

Staff writers Francine Kiefer and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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