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The Newt deal


AFTER GROUSING about it for eternities, Republicans are finally making a sincere effort to destroy the welfare state.

For the past 60 years Republicans have been saying the welfare state was destroying us, or would destroy us, and we'd better destroy it first, or else.

When their chances came, though, Republicans as formidable as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan always decided it was wiser to go on living with it.

Now the Newtites are at last doing their best to bring it down. This explains all the congressional activity aimed at afflicting the afflicted and comforting the comfortable. Republicans have decided to quit talking the talk and start walking the walk. Decided to bring down Ole Devil Welfare State.

Newt, lad! It's good to see somebody finally do more than talk, Newt, and everybody knows you're smart enough to talk 300 words a minute, teach school and make a monkey out of the Democratic Party all at the same time, but still --

Eisenhower, Nixon, Ronald Reagan -- those were serious men, as the guy told the punk about the Mafia people the punk was fooling around with. "Serious men," the guy said.

So were Ike, Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Serious men. When men like that decided to stay with the welfare state regardless of what the Republican boilerplate said, they didn't do it lightly.

The thing was younger too than it is now. When Eisenhower took over, it was scarcely 20 years old. With Nixon, it was in its mid-30s; with Reagan, in its late 40s.

Now it's over 60 years old. That's a lot older than you, Newt. And a lot older than the flock of House Newtites so eager to afflict the afflicted.

The welfare state is now so old that most Americans now alive don't even know what was here before it came along. It is almost old enough for Social Security, and that's old.

Old, Newt. Old, you starry-eyed young right-wingers with dreams of the triumphantly uninhibited total-market-world to come. And here's what old means:

Entrenched in life, that's what it means. Set in its ways. Some parts not working too well. A pain in the neck and liver to anybody who has to live with it, but a pain not easily escaped, because it's your heritage and your future.

It's what bore you and raised you, because it defined the world in which you were born and raised and fitted out to become speaker of the House or brilliantly spoken conservative egghead, as the case may be.

But I am carried away into poetic delicacies inappropriate for political screeds. I should be content to note that the United States has been a welfare state for over a quarter of its entire existence. For so long that it might well be renamed "The United Welfare State of America."

Trying to destroy it now is like trying to destroy the American system. When planning to destroy government systems, sound practice suggests having something ready to replace them. Even then it's a risky bet. Witness Lenin, who planned to replace a destroyed system with Marx, police and prison.

The Newtites appear to be sentimental romantics. They seem to believe that once the welfare state is in ruins the good old days will resume, the good old system will cut in again, good old American human nature will prevail and the good old liver bile will once again flow at the good old rate of four pints a day once prescribed by Carter's good old Little Liver Pills.

Yes, I overstate the absurdity of the Republicans' optimism, but only because the notion that time can be rolled back and mythical pasts restored belongs in Ray Bradbury's science fiction, not in the governance of large, rich, powerful and incredibly complex nations.

Actually the good old days were, as the book title says, terrible. Like them or not, these are the good old days here and now.

Destroying the state without much idea of what might replace it was the program of the so-called "New Left," which yearned to improve the world in the '60s and '70s.

They were products of the anti-war passion of the Vietnam years. Their theory was that the United States was so dreadful a place that whatever it became after its destruction could only be better. Were you once a New Leftie, Newt?

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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