When a Conservative Is Not Really Conservative

AS the national press continues to dissect Republican plans for welfare and Medicare, conventional wisdom has focused on the GOP's alleged extremism. As months pass, the argument goes, we see more evidence of how serious the Republicans were when they claimed to be leading a revolution.

The real story is not the yawning chasm that allegedly separates the two parties, but rather the curious convergence of their political outlooks.

Mainstream news reports speak of the considerable "cuts" in Medicare that will take effect under the GOP plan. Most people assume, quite understandably, that a cut in funding for a federal program means the government spends less on the program than it did the year before.

But in Washingtonspeak, a cut is not a cut. Nearly every alleged cut that occupies the attention of the general media is merely a cut in the rate of a program's projected growth. Let's say the government spent $50 million promoting midnight basketball this year and planned to spend $70 million on it next year. If, when next year's budget comes up for debate the government ends up appropriating $65 million, Washington bureaucrats would actually call this a $5 million cut. Meanwhile, spending on the program would increase 30 percent.

This is precisely the character of the Republicans' Medicare "cuts," and it is why Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has objected so vehemently to the suggestion that a significant change is being made. "There are no cuts," he insisted to "CBS This Morning" host Harry Smith.

Congressman Daniel Moynihan (D) of New York observed that no one is talking about radical changes in the system. Right now, Medicare costs double every seven years, whereas the Republicans would like to see those costs double every 10. This is a revolution?

Not an opposition party

Ever since the New Deal, and especially since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the Republican Party has ceased to be a genuine opposition party. Dwight D. Eisenhower made no moves to repeal any element of the welfare state and even initiated a modest expansion in its scope. Richard Nixon was responsible for an enormous expansion of federal power. He came close, in fact, to guaranteeing a minimum income to every citizen - one of the most radical proposals in US history.

Contrary to popular belief, this pattern - sometimes referred to as "me too" Republicanism - held true during the Reagan administration. Author Larry Schwab's provocative but relatively neglected volume, "The Myth of a Conservative Reagan Revolution," demonstrates that despite his legendary rhetoric, Reagan utterly failed to stem the tide of big government. He entered office, for example, having vowed to abolish the Departments of Education and Energy, but instead added a cabinet department - the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

The Reagan-era budget "cuts," it should be emphasized, were hardly cuts at all. They were cuts in the rate of spending growth. Author David Frum's "Dead Right" has the virtue of examining the current state of the conservative movement in light of this question: With the Reagan revolution an abysmal failure, what should conservatives do now?

Conservatives once opposed the welfare state on distinctly ideological grounds. Medicare and other welfare-state programs, they argued, transfer the allegiance of the individual from local institutions - families, churches, and civic groups - to a faceless central state. Libertarian Republicans would add that through its hyperstimulation of demand, Medicare is itself responsible for much of the rise in health-care costs, which has been the source of so much concern.

But no longer. In order to qualify as a conservative in 1995, it is necessary only to spend slightly less money than the Democrats.

The Democrats, of course, have deliberately sought to perpetuate the myth of GOP extremism. After all, fund-raising becomes much easier when you can portray your opponents as radicals and fanatics. It would hardly be a successful direct-mail campaign that began with the acknowledgement: "Our opponents have accepted all our premises, but won't you send us $25?"

In a recent report, the Brookings Institute, a left-of-center Washington think tank, admitted: "Viewed historically, the Contract [With America] represents the final consolidation of the bedrock domestic policies and programs of the New Deal, the Great Society, the post-Second World War defense establishment, and, most importantly, the deeply rooted national political culture that has grown up around them."

Who's a true conservative?

This is "conservatism" all right, but it conserves the very growth of government and centralization of power that conservatives fought tooth and nail.

This is not to suggest that there are no conservatives at all in Congress. In the House, a solid core of freshmen Republicans, though frequently rebuffed and even scolded by the party leadership, continues to push for radical change in government.

Meanwhile, it's business as usual in Washington. No wonder third-party sentiment is so strong.

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