Get ready America, it's time for the pain


IT IS A question of pain. Everyone agrees there must be pain for everybody, though something in the manner of those who talk of pain's necessity hints that they themselves expect exceptions will be made in their cases.

Since they are mostly members of Congress and its political courtiers, their expectations are probably well founded. This is a class highly skilled at insulating itself from such common miseries as the health-insurance nightmare and the vanishing-pension phenomenon.

Just last year they decided that absolutely nothing could be done in the health-care line for the rest of us. Our pain must be borne, they decided, lest the struggle for relief destroys a magnificent health-care system.

Suggestions that the rest of the population might at least be extended the same health-care plan Congress enjoyed were shrugged off as clownish frivolities.

"You know as well as we do, wise guy, that giving everybody the same health-care choices Congress enjoys would bankrupt the country!"

In their muddle-headed way, members of both parties connived to keep us resigned to that good old, best-in-the-world health-care system, bankruptive though it, too, was.

After that a lot of them retired on pensions that even Ronald Reagan's make-believe "Welfare Queen" might have declined because of the excessive costs.

Now the Republicans go forward alone uttering the bold call for pain. This year's Republicans are different from last year's Democrats. Being brain-dead, the Democrats were content to leave people writhing in the pain they had grown accustomed to.

The Republicans, being full of ideas and so young they can't remember they are ideas that have already failed, intend to produce some fresh new pain.

One wants to believe that this pain will be equally distributed, as Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. John Kasich say it will. As the Democrats observe, however, cutting taxes on investors with capital-gains income while cutting services for people on Medicare suggests Republicans don't know the first thing about the equal distribution of pain.

Young Mr. Kasich has a fetching earnestness which suggests totally honest belief that failure to balance the budget will be catastrophic. Total honesty and a winning smile, which he also has, are a combination that is hard to resist, even when they are promising pain for your own good.

Still, when a man smiles while talking about the salubrious effects of pain, you don't have to be a cynic to suspect that he is either in a nasty line of work or has a pain-exemption clause in his contract.

Upright and likable though Mr. Kasich may be, you would be ill advised to expect an equal distribution of that healing pain of which Republicans speak. Politics has nothing to do with distributing the pain equally.

If it did there would probably be no politics. At the heart of all political business is the question of material reward and punishment.

Or to put it in the most appallingly vulgar terms, it is about who gets the lion's share of the kill. Last year's Republican triumph is leading inevitably and naturally to a redistribution of wealth.

Newt Gingrich, even more than most successful Republicans of recent years, represents American business. It would be astonishing if the pain to be equally distributed produced anything more from the Chamber of Commerce than a faint "Ouch" among the booming huzzahs.

If there are shrieks of agony, they will come from the bottom of the population. It has received a generous share of the wealth for so long that people's lives have been powerfully shaped by it. Changing the shape of those lives -- ah, now we speak of real pain.

Observe that Gingrichism obviously requires squeezing the bottom and fattening the top, and Republicans always accuse you of fomenting "class warfare." This is silly.

With the middle class voting for radical Republicans of the Gingrich school and for Rockefeller-type Republican-Democrats like Bill Clinton, there is not enough bottom to start a class tiff, much less a class war.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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