HAS IT come to this, then? Have we sunk so low that our politicians cannot perform even minimally competent demagoguery? O tempora, as a great demagogue once said, O mores.
There, after too much delay and too many meetings (good demagoguery is spontaneous and personal) stood Marlin Fitzwater, the chief spokesperson for the chief person, to explain -- well, actually, to alibi -- recent urban unpleasantnesses as the result of the "liberal social-welfare programs" of the 1960s and 1970s which had "failed."
Asked for just one specific, he replied, "I don't have a list with me." Not since Dwight Eisenhower asked for a week to remember his vice president's contributions has anyone stood in the White House with such a mouthful of teeth.
Alas poor Marlin, a nice man who was (let's assume in kindness) following orders. He is to be pitied not because his comment was dishonest -- though it was -- but because it was inept. One can demagogue the devil out of the Democrats on race and poverty, effectively and only a tad dishonestly because this is an area in which Democrats have a few little secrets they'd rather not discuss.
As do Republicans.
First, let's provide the list that Mr. Fitzwater must have left in the pocket of his other suit. Here are the major social programs commenced by the Democrats in the 1960s: Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, guaranteed student loans, Head Start. Here are the major social programs commenced by Democrats in the 1970s: none. Here is the one started by the Republicans: automatic Social Security cost-of-living increases.
Notice that most of those programs are not just for the poor. Whereupon we come to one of the Republican secrets: Government programs are mostly for the middle and upper-middle classes. Even Medicaid and food stamps enrich the better-off. The poor benefit, but the doctors and supermarkets get the money.
As for Head Start and feeding poor mothers and their infants, does the White House argue that a kid is more likely to grow up to be a rioter for having been denied the benefits of illiteracy and malnutrition?
But none of this is what the Republicans mean. They mean The W-Word. They mean welfare and all that it inspires among hard-working, not-so-rich voters. It inspires visions of slovenly folk who could get jobs if they really tried but who instead hang around street corners, having more babies and generally misbehaving.
This picture is mean-spirited, exaggerated but not entirely incorrect. Most people who go on welfare get off it, and in real (inflation-adjusted) money, welfare recipients get less now than they did a decade ago.
Still, no society has figured out how to give those truly unable to work enough money to live decently without providing an incentive to the marginally employable not to seek work at all. Franklin Roosevelt, who started the current welfare program (in the 1930s, not the '60s), knew that, but knew that providing welfare was less expensive than providing work. It still is, which is how even welfare serves the rich. It buys tranquility on the cheap, compared with the cost of making sure everyone has a decent job.
What changed in the 1960s was not the program but an attitude, made respectable by some (in fairness, not Bill Clinton's) factions of the Democratic Party, which encouraged people to consider themselves victims, thereby absolving them of the obligation to observe standards of behavior. That's something Democrats don't like to discuss.
And then there is something neither party wants to talk about. Mr. Fitzwater (meaning President Bush) to the contrary, these programs did not fail. The War on Poverty helped reduce poverty. Compensatory education and hiring helped create a black middle class.
Republicans don't like admitting this, because it means government programs work. Democrats don't want to discuss it, because that compensatory hiring, also known as affirmative action, is widely, and justly, unpopular.
With a touch of his inimitable, impish hyperbole, Murray Kempton once said that labor unions provided for "the care and feeding of incompetent white men." Affirmative action does the same for black men and women. It has given millions the chance to make a decent living as teachers, cops, secretaries and small businessmen. Most are just as competent as the white electricians and pipe-fitters protected by the unions. In both cases, a few are not.
This progress comes at a price, paid by the white workers who needed those jobs and didn't get them. Democrats prefer to avoid the subject because it divides their constituency. Republicans like to use it for demagoguery, but only until someone asks why no one in their constituency ever has to pay the price of social progress.
But a really good demagogue could finesse that, if only there were any around.
Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.