an Editorial from the Wall Street Journal
Four years ago at election time, the American people were so enervated by the two major parties' offerings in the presidential campaign that they dumped nearly 20% of their vote onto a third party candidate. But one piece of the political landscape got voters' blood boiling: Congress. Congress, that bastion of "gridlock," was at its lowest popular ebb in modern times. Two years later, of course, the voters transferred control of the full Congress to the Republican Party, now gathered in San Diego. We assume their mandate was "do something." But despite this historic transition, the consensus wafting from the political barracks is that this new Congress, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, has been in some vague sense a manifest failure--"unpopular" because "most" Americans think it's "extremist." And so on. This sentiment grows largely out of the compost heap of public opinion polling, and while we're not quite ready to bury polls as a tool of politics, we're becoming fairly impatient with seeing them used as a substitute for any sort of effort to think seriously about politics outside the context of these polls. The record of the GOP Congress is a case in point. The "extremist" gripe grows largely out of the politics of Medicare reform, with the White House and the AFL-CIO broadcasting to the public that the Republican House is planning a wanton assault on grandma and her medical care. Now, we understand that politics ain't beanbag, but we worry about a political culture that reduces all of its arguments to melodrama. At the convention in San Diego, for instance, there is almost a palpable sense among some of the media that their week will be ruined unless Christie Whitman and Phyllis Schlafly are seen rolling in the dirt down on Harbor Drive over the abortion plank. Only at the level of political bloodsport do we recognize an "issue" anymore. In fact, Medicare itself is merely a delivery system for a service. The real issue here is entitlements--the idea born in the anxious years of the New Deal that government should make certain kinds of income transfers automatic, that is, beyond politics. In time Washington's refusal to revisit these "nonpolitical" guarantees, except when Rep. Henry Waxman was expanding them, eventually caused entitlement theory to collapse under a crushing cost burden. So now, after years of presidents trying to get Congress to act responsibly on entitlements, a GOP Congress finally does it and this President decides to veto, and then transforms a serious argument into merely an issue of "Republican extremism." If the ploy works politically this year, Congress may not behave this responsibly again for a decade. But if Republicans keep their majority this year, their Medicare reform will go down as historic, the year in which politicians touched the ``third rail'' and survived. In identifying why the Democratic Congress fell so low in public esteem, surely among the reasons was the sense that it had degraded into little more than a canning factory for diffuse, even arcane, special interests. While virtually the entire private sector upgraded its ability to focus on goals and operate efficiently, Congress remained inert. Newt Gingrich managed the feat of uniting Republicans behind a single, publicly identifiable agenda defined more or less by the Contract. At least within Congress, gridlock vanished--in contrast to the Democrats of 1993-1994, who failed even to take a vote on health care. Now with a Congress acting in a way that represents a clear political will, Mr. Clinton has gone along with the first phaseout of a farm entitlement--on corn and wheat--since the New Deal. This Congress is also the first to genuinely cut discretionary spending since 1981-1982. It is especially important as a political matter because this is the pool of money from which traditional Congressional logrolling is done. Republicans cut their own social pork barrel. As for reform, the line-item veto represents a remarkable event, the giving up of institutional power to the presidency. It is a direct reversal from the gradual expropriation of power--war powers, budget acts--that occurred since the Watergate era. The one failure here was term limits, alas. Nonetheless the Contract's first days of Congressional reforms--ending Congress's unconscionable immunity from laws it imposed on everyone else, putting term limits on baronial committee chairmen--were a remarkable smashing of the barnacles on the Beltway rust bucket. Then there's telecom and welfare, which history may see as most important for the direction they set. They are both acts of modesty, in that they cede power to others (markets in communications, states in welfare) rather than try to dictate from Washington. This may be the Congress's best legacy. Republicans erred, as a tactical matter, in believing they could pass their overall budget without the White House. They could have pursued the do-nothing strategy George Mitchell used to frustrate George Bush. But they gambled on governing. It would have done even more if President Clinton hadn't used his veto. In using his veto, Mr. Clinton and Dick Morris have been skillfully cynical, claiming to agree with the GOP direction while picking a few popular items to demagogue and veto, with Medicare the most obvious example. But for all of that, Congress has succeeded in changing the political direction of the country, moving a liberal President to their side rhetorically, and even forcing Dick Gephardt to embrace the principle of a balanced budget. If Democrats had done half as much they'd still be in the majority.