Too conservative to dump Clinton


WASHINGTON -- This presidential season is defined by a double paradox: The voters' conservatism is making them resistant to Bob Dole's message and tolerant of Bill Clinton's performance.

Conservatives have told the country that the federal government is less useful than it thinks. Convinced, the country has concluded that stewardship of the government is not nearly as important as it was during the Cold War and when the government had confidence in, and money for, grand domestic designs.

This diffidence of the electorate makes it difficult for Senator Dole to communicate a sense of urgency, or even get the electorate's attention.

Not scandalized by scandals

Mr. Dole hoped the issue of President Clinton's character would have high saliency. But conservatives have convinced the country that politicians are not generally moral exemplars, so the country is not scandalized by Clinton scandals.

Besides, the country's conservatism has caused it to outgrow the statist expectation that politicians can and should set society's moral tone.

Mr. Dole blames the president for sharply increased drug use since 1992, and promises to stop drugs at the nation's borders. But the conservative country understands the complexity and essential autonomy of the culture, and hence understands that broad behavioral changes are almost never the direct and immediate results of new administrations.

And having been tutored by conservatism concerning the government's incompetence, the country disbelieves that the government can even measurably dent the drug problem by performing wonders of interdiction.

The conservative case against President Carter in 1980 emphasized the "misery index," the combined inflation and unemployment rates.

With the August unemployment rate of 5.1 percent, the lowest in seven years, today's "misery index" is 8.1 percent, lower than the lowest yearly total recorded in the Reagan-Bush years (8.9 in 1986).

Conservatives preach that "big government" is bad, and that the best measure of bigness is federal spending as a percentage of GDP. However, Richard McKenzie of the University of California, Irvine, says federal spending in President Clinton's term will be 21.1 percent of GDP, a smaller fraction than in Ronald Reagan's first term (23) or his second (21.8).

An objection

Conservatives will object that using total federal spending is unfair because President Reagan's sharp increase in defense spending contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and hence to the decline of defense spending relative to GDP. Fine, says Professor McKenzie, exclude defense spending.

But then also exclude federal debt service. It is a function of federal debt accumulated primarily under Mr. Clinton's post-World War II predecessors, particularly Mr. Reagan, but has stabilized as a percentage of GDP in the 1990s.

And exclude Social Security and Medicare expenditures, which have increased as a portion of GDP because of the aging of the population.

The remaining federal spending declined under President Reagan from 8.9 percent of GDP to 6.3 percent. It rose under President Bush but under Mr. Clinton has declined from 7.7 percent to 7.1, and Mr. McKenzie says three-quarters of the Clinton decline occurred before the arrival of a Republican Congress.

Conservatism deplores deficits. The deficit averaged 5.1 percent of GDP in Mr. Reagan's first term and 3.5 in his second; it will have averaged 2.3 in Mr. Clinton's term.

Facing facts

Finally, conservatism teaches realism -- looking facts in the face -- and hence inoculates the country against extravagant expectations.

So the country's conservatism disposes it to skepticism about the core of Senator Dole's campaign, his promise to cut taxes 15 percent while balancing the budget (and protecting Social Security and Medicare, as he recently said in Florida, and protecting veterans programs, as he recently assured a veterans convention, and protecting the Department of Energy's labs in New Mexico, as he recently said in New Mexico).

Jonathan Rauch coined the term "demosclerosis" to describe the disease that makes government resistant to large change. It is resistant precisely because it has been responsive to so many intense factions.

Today, writing in the National Journal, Mr. Rauch notes that unrealism is flourishing among some conservatives: "It is the right more than the left that clings to the millennialist visions of a transformed government."

He recommends conservatives adopt an attitude of "enlightened defeatism" because: "Taxpayers will not allow the government to do much more than it does now. But government's client groups will not allow it to do much less."

The conservative victory of 1994 forced the debate that came to this conclusion. Senator Dole's fundamental problem is that the country is conservative and, if not content, reconciled.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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