Amid the ruins of his humongous health-care plan, and on the heels of a Republican congressional landslide, President Clinton declared the era of big government over, its costly ambitions in full flight. But that was before the State of the Union address last week, when the president proposed new programs costing some $55 billion. Anyone who really thinks the welfare state is on the run should recall poor Marcus Crassus.
The name may fail to ring a bell because Crassus, a Roman general, never made it big. At the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, his legions suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of the underdog Parthians. Expert horse archers, the Parthians had a devious battle tactic. They would charge a foe while firing arrows, wheel their mounts sharply to create a dust cloud, and gallop away in retreat. Well, apparent retreat.
Suddenly, they would turn in their saddles and fire another volley. Caught unawares by "the Parthian shot" (origin of the modern phrase "parting shot"), Crassus's men fell in droves. Before the fracas was over, 20,000 Roman soldiers were dead and the general wound up with his head on a pike instead of a coin.
Change Parthians and Romans to Clintonites and conservatives and the analogy is uncanny. Numerically superior, flush with victories in welfare and agriculture reform, conservatives in Congress hope to rout big government. The president beclouds the issue by seeming to accept ideological defeat. But as he rides off into the sunset, his hand slips into his quiver, he twists around - and the sky is dark with political arrows whistling toward conservative ranks.
The Medicare arrow
The biggest arrow is Medicare. The $200-billion-a-year federal health-care program for the elderly threatens, along with Social Security, to swallow the federal budget and force huge payroll-tax increases as the baby boomers retire. Reining in the program is a must. So what does the president do? He capitulates. He agrees the program must be reformed. Then he proposes to extend Medicare coverage to the uninsured starting at age 55, allowing them to buy into the program until they turn 65.
Yet, because many of these "near elderly" wouldn't be able to afford the $300-a-month buy-in premiums, political pressure would rise for government subsidies. The Medicare expansion would start small but grow monstrously in response to chants of "compassion" and "fairness."
Another Parthian shot by Clinton would give the states $22 billion more in block-grant funds to help families send their children to institutionalized day care. The evidence across cultures and centuries points to the family as the most effective civilizer of the young, and liberals like the president publicly espouse this maxim. Yet, not one penny in the president's tax credits would go to parents who stay home and care for their children. Why not tax relief for all parents?
Education is a third area where liberal arguments have been routed time and again, but the battle never ends. Clinton wants to spend $5 billion building schools and $7.3 billion hiring 500,000 new teachers over the next five years. Never mind that such decisions are better made locally. Here is a chance for the president to pay back the teacher unions that worked overtime to elect him.
Money to spend
Of course, one reason for the president's envisioned new spending is that 1998 could see a $30-billion surplus. There are responsible uses for a surplus, such as refunding it to taxpayers. But to use our good fortune to once more expand government is beyond irresponsibility. It is self-destructive, like the compulsion that drives a credit-card abuser, once out of debt, to binge on a European vacation and a 50-inch television.
The spending reflex isn't limited to one party. With the federal purse strings in GOP hands, discretionary domestic spending is increasing at four times the inflation rate. Thus, those whose conservatism is limited to accounts receivable and accounts payable quickly become liberalism's bowmen when budgets turn black. But philosophical conservatives, who know that big government and liberty are incompatible, should lock shields, weather the onslaught, and press on with the attack on federal giantism.
The recent charges against Mr. Clinton could make their task easier. A president slowly drained of prestige by unshakable scandal is in no position to push an aggressive agenda. If the evidence of wrongdoing topples the administration, however, the next president might be in a position to push costly new programs into law during a honeymoon period with Congress. Liberalism's parting shot may yet be its last gasp - or simply a chance to reload.
* Edwin J. Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a public policy research institute in Washington.