Health care was one of the voters' top concerns in 1992. And it was one of the main reasons Bill Clinton got elected. As President, Clinton turned the problem over to a 500-person task force. They produced a 1,410-page report aimed at overhauling the nation's health-care system. It looked like something invented by Gyro Gearloose.
"Uh-oh," the voters said. "This wasn't what we meant by health-care reform." The vast majority of middle-class people are satisfied with their health care and their health insurance. All they wanted was cost controls and guaranteed access. Instead, the Administration threatened to take away what they already had, turn it over to the government and then give it back to them.
The public was horrified. It was like finding a leak in the basement and deciding the best way to fix it is to blow up the house. Health-care reform was a non-starter. The only thing that came out of it was a monumental political disaster for the Democrats.
And guess what? Health-care reform is still a top concern of voters in 1995.
Now look at what the Republicans are doing. They got elected because they said they could solve the nation's problems with less government. Fine, the voters said. How about tackling welfare and crime and jobs and political reform and the deficit? And don't forget health care.
The "contract with America" promises to do most of those things. And more. Much more. Like restructuring entitlement programs, changing the legal system and the regulatory process, eliminating the national-service program, slashing transportation subsidies, reorganizing Medicare, de-funding the arts and public broadcasting and eliminating whole areas of federal responsibility such as education, housing and energy policy. And delivering a nice big tax cut to boot.
"Uh-oh," voters are saying. "This isn't what we mean by solving problems." Why is the GOP trying to change the school-lunch program? And cut loans to college students? And weaken the Clean Air Act? And shut down Amtrak and PBS? And build a "Star Wars" defense system? Those sound like solutions for which there are no known problems.
Last week, one poll asked Americans which worries them more: that the Republicans will go too far in helping the rich and cutting needed services, or that the Democrats will go too far in keeping costly and wasteful government programs? Almost twice as many people were worried that the GOP would go too far. The Big Uh-Oh has set in.
The contract is in trouble because Republicans are overreaching. They can't keep their hands off the school-lunch program. Or environmental protection. Or public broadcasting. They're talking about "fundamentally restructuring" Medicare. Those kinds of programs have two things in common. One, they benefit everybody. Two, they work.
So why would Republicans want to fool around with them? For the same reason people thought Democrats wanted to fool around with health care--ideology.
Ideologues believe if something is right, it has to work, even if it doesn't work. To a lot of Americans, that description fit Clinton's health-care czar, Ira Magaziner. And maybe the health-care czarina, Hillary Rodham Clinton. They seemed like ideological zealots who believe in big government. Given a chance to fix the health-care system, they decided to let government take it over.
Actually, the reason Clinton allowed that to happen had nothing to do with ideology. It had to do with practicality. The President argued that insurance reform couldn't work without universal coverage. If you guarantee everyone the right to buy insurance, you have to force everyone to buy insurance. Otherwise, the young and the healthy won't pay, and the old and the sick will drive up the cost.
The simplest way to get universal coverage is to have the government run the health-care system. The President rejected that idea. Too radical. So they came up with an elaborate contraption that no one understood.
Poor Clinton. He tried to be practical and ended up being called a Bolshevik.
The same kind of suspicion is growing about House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Is he really a practical man who wants to solve problems? Or is he a wild-eyed zealot whose aim is to smash the system and grab power? He seems to be driven by pure ideological hatred of government. If government is wrong, nothing it does can possibly work, even if it does work.
Americans are pragmatists. The golden rule of pragmatism is: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Clinton violated that rule last year when he tried to fix what wasn't broken in the health-care system. Gingrich is violating it this year with his attacks on Medicare, public broadcasting and environmental protection. Ideologues can't resist the temptation not to leave well enough alone.
Unlike health-care reform, however, the "contract with America" will not be a total failure. We're going to get welfare reform. That's the one program everyone agrees is broken. And it's going to be fixed. After all, Clinton promised to reform the welfare system back in 1992.
But welfare reform is proving to be surprisingly difficult. Democrats scored big political points in the House last week by attacking the GOP welfare proposal as unnecessarily harsh. Everyone wants welfare reform, but the Republicans are endangering their cause by overreaching.
Some things that are broken are not going to get fixed. For example, Republicans have promised to curb wasteful government spending. How about costly farm supports and corporate subsidies? Not on your life. Those programs are protected by powerful interest groups.
Term limits is headed for an embarrassing defeat. Having just won power, Republicans are reluctant to limit their own careers. The Senate passed its own version of a line-item veto last week, but it's far weaker than the House's version. Having just won control of Congress, Republicans are reluctant to give up too much authority to the President. Campaign reform is getting nowhere. Having just taken over, Republicans are learning how to shake down lobbyists the same way Democrats did for years.
Some things may get fixed even if most people don't think they're broken, like environmental protection laws and Medicare. Can Social Security be far behind?
Actually, Social Security is in a category all by itself. Everyone pretends it's not broken because nobody, including the Republicans, wants to risk trying to fix it. Look what happened to the overwhelmingly popular balanced-budget amendment this month. The Democrats stopped it with just two words: "Social Security." If opponents of the amendment find themselves under attack in next year's campaign, all they need to say is "Social Security" and they'll be home free.
What about the biggest problem of all--the federal budget deficit? Republicans insist they will balance the budget by the year 2002. But they're damaging their credibility by proposing a big tax cut at the same time. If they're serious about reducing the deficit, why are they making the problem worse?
The same thing happened to Clinton in 1993. The new President proclaimed his commitment to deficit reduction. Then, however, he damaged his credibility by proposing an economic stimulus package. More deficit spending! If he was serious about reducing the deficit, why would he make the problem worse?
A lot of people suspected Clinton wasn't serious about cutting the deficit. He was just using it as a justification to raise taxes and divert some of the money into new government programs. Right now, the suspicion is growing that Republicans aren't serious about cutting the deficit. Their real purpose is an ideological one--to demolish the federal government.
Last week, 102 House Republicans broke ranks and called for scaling back the tax cut. Their party leaders, they said, were overreaching. As a result, they were in danger of losing credibility on the deficit.
It's not like Republicans weren't warned this could happen. All they had to do was look at what happened to Gov. George Allen in Virginia this year.
Allen proposed a $2.1-billion tax cut. No one understood why. The state's finances are in good shape. Virginia's tax burden is one of the nation's lowest. To finance the tax cut, the state would have had to make big spending cuts in such popular programs as police protection, services for the elderly and higher education. Polls showed Virginians strongly opposed those spending cuts. They were not enthusiastic about the tax cut, either.
The knockout blow came when a group of influential business leaders and three former governors--two of them Republican--warned that Allen's budget cuts would destroy the state's college system.
As a result, an amazing thing happened. The Virginia legislature killed the tax cut. One month after the GOP took Congress. In a conservative Southern state. In an election year, when the entire state legislature must face voters. And where Democrats hold only a thin majority.
It happened because Allen overreached. His tax cut was not designed to solve any pressing problems. As business leaders warned, it would create more problems than it solved. It was really designed to make an ideological statement. Allen wanted to impress Republicans in Washington. His message: "Hey, look at me. I got with the program."
Actually, the Virginia legislature did give Allen victory on one issue. It was the one problem everybody agreed needed to be solved. They passed welfare reform.*