Listen to Republicans and envy the deaf


WASHINGTON -- It is said that publishing the best dictionary is simple: Copy the one that currently is best and correct one error. That is the approach taken by both sides in what is called the budget "battle." By tiny tweakings of the status quo, both sides claim to have won famous victories. Listening to those claims, one remembers that there is unseemly exposure of mind as well as of body.

The budget agreement was made possible not by the political tweakers but by the millions of wealth-creating Americans responsible for the humming economy and the $225 billion five-year surge of revenues. Asked the secret of his success, billionaire J. Paul Getty wrote: "Some people find oil. Others don't." The budget-balancers found money.

The significance of the budget agreement is twofold. It demonstrates the indispensability of the locution "political class" when discussing contemporary politics. And it guarantees that the 1998 midterm elections will not resemble those of 1994.

The budget agreement, which does nothing decisive about anything (not about entitlements, or estate and capital-gains taxation, or the Consumer Price Index), is characteristic work of risk-averse careerists, people in politics less to do something than to be something -- to be in politics. The agreement demonstrates that, never mind lamentations about "partisanship," most of today's politicians comprise a homogenized class, less divided by ideology than united by a desire to skate past the next election.

Twenty-eight months ago Republicans fresh from the 1994 elections announced themselves unsatisfied by little aims. They would not just quibble about funding levels for the various tentacles of the federal Leviathan, they would shrink the government's reach, beginning with the abolition of entire Cabinet departments -- Education, Commerce, Energy, perhaps Housing and Urban Development, too.

They huffed and they puffed and they blew . . . a little inconvenience toward the National Endowment for the Arts, which, unlike Republican aspirations, survives.

In 1994, Republicans raised the stakes and improved the tone of politics by nationalizing the off-year elections around bold themes and promises. In 1998, politics will be local again, the old maelstrom of mere interests, unleavened by ideas. What can Republicans run on collectively? Nothing.

Regarding domestic policy, the budget agreement defines Republicans as slightly sullen and somewhat embarrassed defenders of the status quo.

Regarding defense policy, which used to highlight a realism that made Republicans indispensable, does anyone believe the defense numbers Republicans found convenient in the deal-making bear any relationship to a sober analysis of threats and responsibilities? With those numbers the current party severs its connection with Ronald Reagan who, forced to choose, unhesitatingly chose national strength rather than a balanced budget.

Some Republicans say that getting budget-balancing out of the way opens the way for them to concentrate on "the rest of our agenda." And what might that include? Tax reform? The budget deal will mean new doses of what real reform would curtail -- further complications of the tax code, designed to reward particular constituencies and behavior (as with the $35 billion worth of credits and deductions for college tuition).

Besides, the code's complexities create muscular client groups that benefit from them. And the code sustains the capital's class of lawyers and lobbyists who serve those interested in bending public power for private advantage. Forbes magazine notes that there have been more than 5,000 changes in the tax code in the last decade -- almost two per workday. Does anyone believe that the gang that cannot eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts is up to the kind of combat that serious tax reform would entail?

Well, then, will those tough-talking Republicans do for the federal government what the people of California did for themselves with the California Civil Rights Initiative -- end racial and gender preferences in government programs? Newt Gingrich, the General McClellan of the culture war, says not yet: "We need a black, Hispanic, Asian leader or a group of leaders who are prepared to stand up and say, 'The time has come to move beyond quotas, . . . beyond set-asides.' "

No, the time has come to move beyond nonleaders like Speaker Gingrich, who evidently thinks African-Americans like Ward Connerly, the prime mover of the California initiative, and the other African-Americans (e.g., Shelby Steele), Hispanics (e.g., Linda Chavez) and females (e.g., the superb Independent Women's Forum) who are Mr. Connerly's allies do not count.

Listening to Republicans these days, one understands the misanthropic Evelyn Waugh writing late in life, "I am quite deaf now; such a comfort."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

! Pub Date: 5/07/97

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