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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2001 / 29 Tishrei 5762

Bill Schneider

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The return of big government

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHAT'S the most conspicuous feature of the new political world, post-September 11? After years of retrenchment, it looks like the era of small government is over.

The lockbox has been opened. And rifled through and picked clean. It was just last spring that the budget office was projecting a $304 billion federal surplus. It was just last month that the two parties were daring each other to touch the social security portion of that surplus (the famous "lockbox'').

Now, according to current estimates, the federal government will have to struggle to balance its books next year and will probably generate a deficit of at least $25 billion after paying for relief efforts, reconstruction, security measures, military spending, foreign aid and an economic stimulus package. The country had thirty years of deficits followed by just four years of surplus. Now it's back to deficit spending.

Plus a big new government agency, the Office of Homeland Security. And big new government powers. "Our risks have gone up,'' Attorney General John Ashcroft told Congress, "and that's what's giving me such a sense of urgency about the legislation we need to pass to give us the tools to curtail terrorism.''

The government has acted to bail out the airlines and expand federal authority over airport security. "I will work with Congress to put the federal government in charge of passenger and bag screening and all safety inspections,'' President Bush promised cheering airline workers in Chicago last month.

When President Clinton proposed an economic stimulus package back in 1993, he got clobbered for it. And now? President Bush says, "I'm confident we can work with Congress to come up with an economic stimulus package that will send a clear message to the risk-takers and capital-generators that the government's going to act, too.''

Congress has already authorized more than $40 billion in emergency spending, plus $20 billion more for future military and civilian projects. President Bush wants to match all that new spending with an additional fiscal stimulus of $60 to $75 billion in tax cuts. "I propose that the United States Congress, as quickly as possible, pass tax reflief equal to or a little bit greater than the monies that we have already appropriated,'' the President said last week.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are proposing a wish list of new spending for school construction, mass transit and repairs and security for government buildings. It looks like a bidding war: Democrats up the ante with new spending and the President calls their bid with tax cuts. "The whole idea of even trying to balance the budget or controlling spending seems to have been thrown out the window,'' Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) lamented.

It's a national emergency, remember. As a conservative activist said recently, "Wars are nasty things. They make governments grow.'' Moreover, President Bush knows what happened when his father failed to respond energetically enough to the last recession ten years ago. "We hear the cries of those who have been laid off,'' this President Bush said on Oct. 2. And on Oct. 3, "One person laid off is one person too many.''

There's another force behind the return of big government: public opinion. The public's trust in government collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s. It rebounded a bit during the good economic times of the mid-80s and mid-90s, but it never got back to where it was in the Kennedy era. Until now.

The latest Washington Post poll shows the public's trust in government surging to its highest level in 35 years. What's happening now is a rally effect -- a sudden burst in faith in everything that symbolizes America. That includes the federal government. Which is odd because the September 11th attacks could be seen as a failure of government. But Americans are not in the mood for recriminations. People are expressing confidence in government for a simple reason: they have no alternative. It's a matter of life and death.

And for another reason: politics has been suspended. A mood of warm bipartisanship has engulfed Washington. "I want to thank the President, who came through for us,'' Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) said. Indeed he did, with $20 billion in emergency relief for New York. A lot of Americans believe that if you get rid of politics, government will work just fine. That's what once attracted voters to Ross Perot, a non-politician who promised to "get under the hood'' and fix the nation's problems: government without politics. Which is what we seem to have now.

Does the rally to government mean the country is moving to the left? There's no evidence of that. Congressional Democrats have had to set aside the big items on their wish list, like a patients' bill of rights and prescription drug coverage for the elderly. The war on terrorism takes up the whole agenda.

Nor is there any indication that the rally to government is helping Democrats. It's helping incumbents. In a crisis, voters want security, not change. Challengers are having trouble raising money in a de-politicized environment. Since Republicans hold most of the seats up in next year's election -- in the races for House, Senate and governor -- that's good news for the GOP.

Does the surge of confidence in government mean anything at all politically? Just this: in a crisis, Americans are willing to give government another chance. Not because they want to. Because they have to.

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10/08/01: On political war
10/01/01: The "born-again" president
09/25/01: Making America squirm
09/14/01: The American spirit will not wane
09/10/01: What Dubya knows about the budget
08/13/01: Japan becomes the latest country to see its politics become personalized
08/09/01: Bush backers out to remake prez yet again
07/30/01: Will the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out?
07/23/01: Both political parties are full of ....
07/16/01: Empowered moderate Republicans
07/09/01: As goes New Jersey, so goes the nation?
07/02/01: Dubya: Like father, like son?
06/15/01: The new soccer moms
06/05/01: Deals or deadlock?
05/29/01: The War Between the States is heating up again
05/21/01: The answer is men
05/10/01: Bush v. Carter?

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© 2001, William Schneider