The Magazine


Oct 2, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 03 • By BYRON YORK
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There' s been talk among Jessie Jackson supporters that a run for presid ent m 1996 would be a great way for Jackson to help the Democratic Party -- not by winning but by energizing borderline Congressional districts and helping Democrats take the House of Representatives back. Of course the downside is that by doing so he would virtually guarantee the election of a Republican president. We know, say some of the most liberal Democrats, but losing Bill Clinton might not be so bad. Just give us the House back.

Perhaps there's a perverse political lesson in that for the other side. If doctrinaire Democrats would sacrifice their president, maybe Republicans should take another look at him. The inescapable fact is that Clinton has been very, very good for conservatives. His presence has helped them achieve greater focus than they've had in years -- and infinitely more power. Now, with Congress on a roll and the GOP almost certain to pick up even more seats in both the House and Senate next year, maybe the best choice for conservatives would be to concentrate on their revoluuon free from the burdens of controlling the executive branch. Maybe there's a conservative case for Clinton in '96.

Look at the main goal of conservatives -- reducing the size, expense, and intrusiveness of government -- and ask whether it would be furthered or hindered by having a Republican in the White House.

The first thing to remember is that Republicans and conservatives did a rather awful job of it during the Reagan/Bush years. The numbers are familiar.

Federal expenditures for welfare and income security programs (excluding Social Security) rose from $ 86 billion in the last year of Jimmy Carter to $ 207 billion in the last year of George Bush. The budget of the Department of Health and Human Services went from $ 76 billion to $ 283 billion in the same time. The Agriculture Department grew from $ 35 billion to $ 63 billion. The annual deficit rose from $ 74 billion to $ 255 billion. And interest on the debt rose from $ 53 billion in Carter's last year to $ 199 billion in Bush's.

When confronted with these ghastly numbers today, the conventional Republican wisdom is twofold: It was the Democratic Congress's fault, and $ Ithings will be different when we have a Republican president and a Republican Congress. But the first statement is wrong, and the uncomfortable truth is the second probably is, too.

Those who still want to blame Democrats for the failures of the Reagan administration should re-read David Stockman's The Triumph of Politics. The young budget director of 1981 would be quite at home with the Republican class in the House today. He was using the same arguments back then that they are using now, and he was filled with the energy of an ambitious back-bencher. But his book is a tale of one defeat after another.

Time after time, the conservative president's cabinet secretaries maneuvered to keep their programs untouched, their budgets high and their power undiminished. "Cabinet officers fought to the last drop of blood against even minor cuts," Stockman wrote. They couldn't kill the Department of Education. They couldn't kill Export-Import Bank subsidies to giant corporations. They couldn't even kill Urban Development Action Grants, which Stockman called " perhaps the most ideologically offensive and wasteful bit of federal spending on the block." Still, Stockman, like many Reaganites, continued to believe the administration was on the right path. "How was it I didn't realize," he wrote later, "that if the administration couldn't turn down something like UDAG, it wasn't about to cut all the less ideologically obnoxous programs necessary to balance the budget?"

Would it be different with a Republican president and Congress? Consider a few realities that will hold regardless of which Republican occupies the Oval Office. While there is certainly a larger field of more experienced conservatives ready to take over the executive branch than there was in 1991, does anyone really think there won't be a few Richard (HHS) Schweikers or James (Energy Department) Edwardses the next time? Given the political nature of high-level appointments, the answer has to be that there will. Like their predecessors, they'll fight to protect their turf -- and be hood-winked by the permanent bureaucracies in the their departments.

And what about those departments that should be eliminated? Some GOP strategists concede that top Republicans, once appointed to that long-sought job in the cabinet, might lose their zeal ito abolish their departments. But most believe that the presence of a Republican Congress -- filled with determined government-cutters -- will keep the Republican executive in line.