The Grim Experiment : After the '64 election, the Democrats pushed the country too far left in creating the Great Society. Today, the GOP wants to pull America to the extreme right. Will they ever learn?

Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Knopf). His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics" (Little Brown)

Ross Perot's surprise third-party announcement didn't come in time to block the new congressional agenda moving through Washington. The trouble is, the United States can't afford another reckless economic and social experiment in which the failed liberalism of the Great Society, the expensive naivete of the 1960s, gets replaced by a new Grim Society, the rightward overreaction of the 1990s.

"Conservative" isn't the right label here. Plans to gut Medicaid, cut Medicare, slash environmental regulation, recast the tax code toward Wall Street and Palm Desert and embark on a risky new approach to welfare aren't considered, careful and incremental. On the contrary, taken together, they are the stuff of radicalism--of ivory-tower planners, ideologues and second-rate professors (three in the congressional GOP leadership alone) ascended to positions of first-class power. Because intellectuals deal in abstractions, it's all too easy for them to slip into recklessness.

Tricky legislative procedures are a warning light. Agendas rushed through Congress, hurried so that ordinary voters do not have time to understand or protest, are almost always the excesses of special interests--not the sentiments of the grass roots. Last week's Medicare "reform" is a perfect example. Moreover, it's fitting to compare the current GOP Congress to the last session to produce so large a blizzard of supposedly reformist domestic legislation--the hyperactive, overwhelmingly liberal 89th Congress of 1965-66.

Both parties go too far, given half a chance. For both episodes prove the same point: Citizens must beware when zealots pretend that a negative election targeting an unpopular White House occupant or candidate was actually a mandate for their own accumulated domestic-policy daydreams.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and the hugely Democratic 89th did this 30 years ago, misinterpreting the defeat of 1964 GOP nominee Barry M. Goldwater as a mandate for piling up federal programs, experimenting with housing, education and welfare, seeking to end poverty almost overnight and paying for everything with printing presses and inflation instead of new taxes. Sociologists and "experts" had a field day, and even the two-to-one Democratic Congress passed some of the more extreme legislation by only two-vote margins. Finally, on Election Day, 1966, the voters rebelled, and the Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate.

The relevance is twofold. First, parts of this "Great Society," grown like Jack's beanstalk, are what we are now fighting over. Republicans are quite correct in saying many entitlements did get out of hand, fueling today's sky-high health costs and welfare outlays. However, just as the 1965-66 congressional surge of progressivism went beyond national support for dealing with the accumulated problems of civil rights, education, health and the environment, the right's "contract with America" orgy also goes beyond a reasonable correction of excessive government and regulation.

The unnerving parallels don't end with initial overreaction. Today's right-wing zealots seem just as eager as 1960s liberals to ignore voter worries that they're going too far--even as they twist the arms of unhappy senators and congressmen to ram legislation through in secrecy before voters can know what's going on. Last week's bloodletting on Medicare, with only one day of hearings and with critical dollar amounts and formulas withheld, follows similar covert procedures in the GOP Congress's regulatory overhaul and tort reform. Fear is also growing that these GOP back-room maneuvers are threatening the future of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Thirty years ago, the ambitious blue-printers were liberals in the Departments of Health, Education and Welfare and Housing and Urban Development, backstopped by academics, economists and consultants from dozens of think tanks, universities and institutes. Today, we have a new generation of overheated individuals--this time conservative--from a new crowd of universities and think tanks. They are now touting the merits of flat taxes and permissive business regulatory policies--free the Oil Spill Five and the Securities Fraud Seven--and just as eager to ennoble overprivileged speculators and corporate buccaneers as their 1960s liberal predecessors were to ennoble underprivileged welfare "clients" and muggers.

Today's right is embarrassed by yesteryear's jokes about experts and eggheads. In the 1990s, the professors who have never met a payroll are managing conservative ideology: House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the former assistant professor of history at West Georgia College; House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former professor of economics at North Texas State University, and Sen. Phil Gramm, presidential candidate and former professor of economics at Texas A&M; University. These three are probably the leading Washington strategists of the GOP's "contract with America," with its commitment to Darwinian sociology and trickle-down economics.

Practical centrism is not what they do. Frederick the Great of Prussia made a shrewd analysis when he said if he wanted to punish a province, he would have it ruled by an intellectual. The United States so opted not only in 1994, when it elected a congressional majority enthralled with professors Gingrich, Armey and Gramm; but also in 1992--by electing former Rhodes Scholar and former part-time University of Arkansas law professor Bill Clinton as President.

The result has been a double-barreled national disenchantment. First, with the President's indecisive leadership; then with the new GOP Congress that has ducked such populist issues as term limits and campaign reform in order to emphasize "contract with America" provisions that can better be described as a "contract with K Street"--the Washington special-interest lobbying community--already being derided by both Perot and Colin L. Powell.

The public understood this first, though, and as autumn's leaves begin to fall in Washington, the ratings of the new GOP Congress and Speaker are already on the ground, brown and crumbling. New polls taken by NBC, Gallup and the Times-Mirror Center all show the Congress drawing negative assessments, the weakest since the election, down from the public's two-to-one favorable views of the new Republicans last winter. Familiarity has bred at least discontent. This has been fanned, most recently, by the arrogance of the new GOP majority, which simultaneously pushed $270-billion worth of Medicare reductions while insisting the country also needed $245 billion of tax cuts tilted to business and the upper brackets. That's chutzpah.

But the most important thing about the apparent simultaneous failure of the Democratic President and the GOP Congress is that the public may finally be rejecting the two-party system, in operation since the 1860s.

National surveys show 60% of Americans favor the creation of a new third party--with half the Democrats and half the Republicans agreeing we need something else. Local polls in California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania indicate equal or greater disenchantment. Perot, in his Monday TV announcement, referred to the two "special-interest parties" and that, too, comes through loud and clear in the polls. We can't be sure what his clever promise will lead to, but there's no doubt voters are sick of the way the interests and lobbies dominate Washington--whichever party is in power.

It would be cheering to suggest that the public's revulsion and the incipient breakdown of the two-party duopoly will come in time to block the Grim Society legislation that Congress wants to enact. But that would be premature. Clinton's willingness to compromise, even with welfare, Medicare and environmental changes he purports to deplore, has skeptical congressional Democrats wondering if doctors can invent a backbone transplant. And besides, the Democrats are as much of a special-interest party as the GOP.

Unfortunately, though the stakes of having a sensible, centrist domestic policy have never been higher, the existing system is still stacked against those who will pay the ultimate price and bear the ultimate burden: the ordinary American household.*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World