Is Big Government Over?

THE great strength of Western democracies, said political philosopher Sidney Hook, is that their leaders are pushed to be ''open-minded about possibilities, but tough-minded about evidence.''

Democracy's system of open party competition demands both.

President Clinton chose to define his 1996 State of the Union message as looking forward to an ''age of possibility.'' But he also declared, in ringing terms, that ''the era of big government is over!''

So he appeared to fulfill both of Hook's criteria: openness to future ideas, but a tough verdict on past big government.

But did he really?

On future plans, he offered a shrewdly selected batch to be considered by lawmakers. Some would require new funding. Many came close to patent infringement of GOP ''family values'' ideas:

* An industry-designed TV ratings system and a blab-off V-chip to help parents decide what's worth watching and enforce the decision. A call to media leaders to join him in discussing ways to improve children's TV fare.

* Merit scholarships for the top 5 percent of high school grads. Tax deductibility for up to $10,000 in annual tuition payments.

* Local acceptance of national standards to measure education results. Connection of all classrooms and libraries to the information superhighway by the year 2000 (the cyber-equivalent of Eisenhower's physical interstate highway system.)

* A $2,600 voucher for the unemployed to use for job training.

And then there were the don'ts: Don't tamper with gun control and the 1994 crime bill. Don't let nuclear and chemical weapons control treaties go unratified. Don't shut down the government again. Don't threaten me with the debt ceiling. Don't change Medicare and Medicaid.

That last don't, unless altered, puts the lie to the ringing declaration that ''the era of big government is over.'' For there is still no sign that Mr. Clinton or any of his advisers is willing to make structural changes in entitlement programs. And, sure as the sun comes up on the second millennium, those changes will have to be made. The inexorable demographics driving costs beyond the growth rate make that clear.

Campaign advisers obviously will not want the president to throw away an issue that has already given him a lift in the polls. And he can rationalize that he can grapple with the problem if only he can get past the reelection hurdle - and hope to stimulate more growth to aid him.

There is irony in the probability that the youthful Mr. Clinton has made gains among the elderly with his defense of the Medicare status quo, while the Medicare-age Sen. Bob Dole is adopting the youth-generation issue: the future burden of runaway entitlement costs.

The State of the Union message always give an incumbent the advantage of ''live drama'' over his opponent's ''talking head'' reply. Clinton maximized that advantage. Mr. Dole looked dour and one-dimensional in the wake of the Capitol show.

But the president still has to grapple with the polls showing something like half the electorate doubting his character - even while giving him improving performance grades. Perhaps he could improve his character rating by being frank about the fundamental budget issue. His handlers won't agree. But it's worth pondering.

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