Politics 1988 style

`LIKE ships that pass in the night,'' was one comment on the current American political scene. Precisely.

The Republicans are running against the Democratic Party of George McGovern and Fritz Mondale.

The Democrats are running against the Republican Party of Ed Meese, James Watt, Michael Deaver, and Ollie North.

According to Ronald Reagan, the Democratic Party of Michael Dukakis is only a ``masquerade'' covering up a program that is ``liberal, liberal, liberal.''

According to Dukakis Democrats, the party of George Bush exists to ease the tax burden on the rich at the expense of the poor.

All of which is a double pattern of deliberate distortions for the benefit of the voters.

Herewith, therefore, an attempt to brush this political obfuscation aside and identify in its historical context what is really at stake in this election campaign.

Once upon a time there was a man named Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a set of national policies that became known as ``the New Deal.'' It was novel in American political history. That was the first time that the federal government accepted responsibility for the welfare of individuals.

Previously, ``welfare'' was the province of local communities and private charities. Under Mr. Roosevelt, the physical and economic well-being of the individual became a charge on the federal Treasury.

The New Deal worked well for a time. It restored purchasing power to the lower economic classes. It primed the economic pump. But along with a steadily rising charge on the Treasury for welfare came rules and regulations governing business and enterprise. The time came when the burden on the Treasury and the restraints on enterprise became disproportionate. American industry lost out in world markets.

The reaction came in the form of Ronald Reagan's ``new conservatism.'' Its essence was cutting the federal income tax and unbuckling the harness of regulation that had played a part in reducing America's competitiveness in world markets.

The New Deal was revolutionary. Mr. Reagan's undoing of some of the New Deal was a counterrevolution.

The counterrevolution made substantial headway during the first Reagan term. Federal income taxes were cut. A brake was put on welfare programs. Restraints were taken off industry and business. Public lands were again opened up to private exploitation.

Sometimes it went too far. Mr. Watt had to go. The environmentalists and conservationists drove him out of Washington. The securities markets got out of hand. A number of operators went to jail. Deregulation of the airlines led to safety problems.

During the second Reagan term the counterrevolution ran into limits. On the social agenda, pornography was checked, but not eliminated. Abortion was checked, but not eliminated. Organized prayers are still forbidden in public schools.

There emerged through the last three Reagan years a new American system, which blends Roosevelt's welfarism with Reagan's counterrevolution. It has been hammered out in the forum of congressional legislation. There are still small battles around the fringes. These are border wars between defenders of welfare and advocates of unfettered enterprise.

But the big issues are settled. The New Deal has been harnessed and restrained. So too has been the Reagan counterrevolution. Anyone familiar with Washington knows that over the next four years, and perhaps longer, there is not going to be any major change in the new American system.

Neither welfarism nor the Reagan counterrevolution is going to regain forward momentum. There is a synthesis of the two. America has reached a new equilibrium, which is certain to last for at least four years, regardless of which party wins.

The real issue is which man can best preside over the new American equilibrium.

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