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The great Potomac earthquake: America's new bargain with Washington.

The 1992 presidential race was supposed to be a yawn. George Bush, loftily hovering above 80-percent popularity last year, was supposed to have reelection sewn up. The real action, pundits told us, must wait for 1996's free-for-all.

This isn't, obviously, how it's working out. To its surprise, America finds itself in the swirl of the most exciting, least predictable presidential horse race since the photo finishes of 1960, 1968, and 1976.

The excitement comes from the twin tremors rattling political seismographs: 1) the spontaneous mobilization of H. Ross Perot's legions, dissatisfied with Republicans and Democrats alike, and still clamoring for change after their hero's abrupt departure from the race; and 2) a public furor at Congress, which has prompted 80-plus incumbents to throw in the towel and not seek reelection to their House seats, while nearly a score of states have put term-limitation measures on November's ballot. In political terms, this is the start of an earthquake--in part, the result of the most painful economic downturn since World War II. In part, too, it's the result of the angry disillusion provoked by Bush's cavalier abandonment of his no-new-taxes pledge and by the White House's persistent failure of leadership on any issue. And, in part, it's the result of the offensive behavior of congressmen kiting checks, fiddling with their post office funds, and generally abusing privileges.

But these factors alone can't account for a public reaction registering in the high reaches of the political Richter scale. As with all major earthquakes, this one is caused by a shift of subterranean geological plates. What is sliding away is the Cold War bedrock upon which much of U.S. post-World War II politics apparently has rested.

Washington at War

It was widely expected that the geopolitical collapse, surrender, and dissolution of the Soviet Union would reshuffle the foreign policy deck. What was not predicted was how much the end of the Cold War would rewrite the rules of domestic politics. Yet this is what is happening. The sudden clamor for change in domestic policy coincides with the sharp reduction of danger abroad, as Americans are demanding to renegotiate the bargain the nation made with Washington a half-century ago.

It was the Cold War, more than the New Deal or Great Society, that allowed Washington to become the dominant political force in American life. There were two reasons for this. The first was the massive power Washington acquired to assemble and run the military-industrial establishment. The second was the enormous legitimacy this gave Washington in non-defense areas.

A Washington competent to defend America was accepted as a Washington competent to attack social and economic ills. The "systems analysis" approach that ostensibly worked in choosing the strategies and weapons to protect America from dangers abroad surely would work to defeat problems at home.

Revealing is the very terminology invoked: Washington launched "wars" on poverty, on drugs, on cancer, and AIDS; Washington sought a Manhattan Project for public housing; Washington was asked for Marshall Plans for urban renewal and for infrastructure. The image of Washington as a masterful General Staff capable of the most extraordinary feats burrowed itself so deeply into the American mind that it spawned one of our most reflexively invoked cliches: "If America can put a man on the moon, it can...."

Thus in the '60s and '70s, when questions arose about protecting the environment, ensuring health care for the elderly and financial support for welfare mothers, giving poor children a "Head Start" on education, and other matters traditionally addressed by local communities, Americans increasingly looked to Washington for answers. And Washington, following central government's natural instinct to aggrandize itself, happily responded by coming up with programs.

The bargain that established this relationship between Washington and the nation was forged from the early '40s through the early '50s. As its part in the bargain, Washington marshalled massive forces to protect America first from Hitler, Nazism, and Japan, and then from Stalin, Brezhnev, Communism, and Soviet missiles.

In exchange, America gave Washington vast powers and, what is as important, vast license. As hot and cold wars raged, America swallowed hard and put up with Washington, tolerating its outrages, its arrogance, its high taxes, its intrusive rules, its swaggering bureaucrats, its suffocating regulations, and the repeated insult of congressmen exempting themselves from the laws that were making life more difficult for the nation. America, too, put up with lawmakers who frolicked on stage with Argentine strip-tease dancers, seduced barely pubescent congressional pages, openly solicited fat speakers' fees and PAC money, voted themselves huge payhikes in the dead of night (while promising each other not to make it an election campaign issue), and took girlfriends on "official" junkets to exotic lands.

Sure, America knew something was wrong. But America needed the bargain and thus stuck by it. Only a powerful Washington could protect America from the deadly predators stalking the world.

Steady Finger on the Button

There was another aspect to the bargain. Because the world was so dangerous, America had to set very rigid standards for its presidents, insisting on a tested, experienced leader who could be trusted to face down Moscow and keep a steady finger above the nuclear button. This, in fact, was the core presidential campaign issue. American voters knew that a presidential miscalculation could trigger nuclear war. Even short of that, the costs of presidential mistakes were still high. A misstep could allow Moscow to gain at Free World expense, overrun yet another country, and even set the dominoes tumbling. America dared not risk this.

The Cold War also affected how a candidate was viewed on non- defense matters. A stumbling economy was seen as bad not only because it put Americans out of work, but also because it cut America's ability to fund military research and buy the best weapons. And, of course, a recession could be exploited by Moscow propagandists always ready to depict America as a failure. Military security even was used to justify education, highway construction, welfare, and other domestic policies.

Thus in almost every election, the paramount issue was whether America would be militarily and economically strong enough to stand up to the Soviets. The urgency of this question narrowed enormously the margin of error tolerable in choosing a president, hence forcing Americans to play it safe.

No longer is this so. With the Cold War over, the old bargain no longer is necessary and a new bargain is being negotiated. While it is still too early to predict what form the new bargain will take, the collapse of the old bargain gives America new freedom in three key areas: 1) America can take strong action to reduce Washington's size and sway; 2) America can be less forgiving of lawmakers' excesses and misdeeds; and 3) America can take vastly greater chances in choosing its president.

It is this new freedom that endangers Washington incumbents, allowed Perot to be regarded seriously as a presidential candidate, and imposes almost no political price on Clinton's total lack of foreign or military policy experience. The five-month Perot bubble is instructive. There was little new, of course, in Perot's anti- Washington message. What is new is the large numbers of Americans ready to risk a president who lacks governing experience. In a post-Cold War world, this is no longer such a risk.

The determination by vast numbers of Americans to scrap the old bargain is obvious from vast anecdotal evidence. As a Pennsylvania Democratic party official told the Washington Post, Americans are "fed up...disgusted with everybody." These views are confirmed by public opinion surveys and primary election exit polls. One national poll finds 73 percent of respondents believing the political system is broken and run by insiders who can't fix it. Another poll finds 84 percent saying that the political system either has to be completely rebuilt, or at least fundamentally changed.

Vandenberg Joins Truman

When Americans began giving Washington ever-greater power a half-century ago, they did so reluctantly. Indeed, after the German and Japanese surrenders in 1945, the public wanted the GIs back home and demobilized immediately, with the domestic pre-war status quo restored. Playing to this, the GOP in 1946 won both houses of Congress by vowing to slash taxes and federal spending. And although history celebrates Winston Churchill's March 5, 1946, "Iron Curtain" speech, much of the public reacted coolly to his impassioned plea for American help for Europe. At that time, the United States clearly did not feel endangered. It would take a series of events to convince Americans that they again needed protection.

Washington was ahead of the nation in realizing that Moscow was behaving less as our wartime ally and more as an adversary. One of the first signals was a rare speech by Stalin on February 9, 1946, warning that wars between Communists and capitalists were inevitable. To a shocked liberal like William O. Douglas this speech was "the Declaration of World War III."

A few weeks later, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Michigan Republican and one-time isolationist, told the Senate of his mounting alarm at Moscow's actions. "What is Russia up to now?," he demanded on the Senate floor. "We ask it in Manchuria. We ask it in Eastern Europe and the Dardenelles....We ask it in the Baltic and the Balkans. We ask it in Poland....We ask it sometimes even in connection with events in our own United States. What is Russia up to now?"

Concern became crisis in February 1947 when London informed the State Department that an increasingly impoverished Britain no longer could afford to protect Greece and Turkey from Communist threats. Now, said London, only America could block Communism's advances in Europe. Many American leaders--among them President Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall, and foreign policy expert John Foster Dulles--were ready to agree. The problem was that the public still was not.

Truman concluded that he had to educate Americans about how seriously Moscow threatened them. This education began in the since-famous February 26 Oval Office meeting with leaders of the GOP-controlled Congress. As Truman intended, they were stunned by what they heard, particularly by an impassioned statement by Dean Acheson, then Under Secretary of State. Acheson recalls the moment in his memoirs:

These congressmen had no conception of what challenged them.... I said, Soviet pressure on the Straits, on Iran, and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration.... The Soviet Union was playing one of the greatest gambles in history at minimal cost. It did not need to win all the possibilities. Even one or two offered immense gains. We and we alone were in a position to break up the play.

Then, according to Acheson and other accounts of the meeting, a long silence followed. It was broken by Senator Vandenberg. He turned to Truman and said: "Mr. President, if you will say that to Congress and the country, I will support you and I believe that most of the members will do the same." In effect, Vandenberg told Truman: Scare Congress and the public. This Truman did before a joint session of Congress on March 12.

To Truman adviser Clark Clifford, the speech was "the opening gun in a campaign to bring people up to [the] realization that the war isn't over by any means." Within weeks, Congress gave Truman the Greek-Turkish Aid Act he wanted. The Cold War bargain was beginning to take shape.

It continued to do so as new events scared America. In March 1948, the Soviets began squeezing Berlin and blockaded the city completely by June, forcing America and Britain to supply Berliners by the famed airlift. That year too, Czechoslovakia fell to the Communists, as did China the following year. What was most terrifying, however, was the September 23, 1949, announcement by Truman that "within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR." Americans then knew that they could be victims of Soviet nuclear attack. Almost as alarming was the discovery that Moscow built its A-bomb three to five years faster than expected because its spies had stolen American and British nuclear secrets.

Alarm over the Soviet Union rightly prompted America to grant Washington vast authority to protect the nation. It led, in April 1949, to the formation of NATO, by which America unprecedentedly committed itself to defend Europe militarily into the unseen future. Then, in June 1950, North Korea attacked the south. Just when Americans thought that GIs finally were out of harm's way, America's sons again were being drafted and dispatched overseas.

Ike's Unbalanced Budget

By the time Eisenhower took his presidential oath in January 1953, America's new bargain with Washington was nearly struck. Ironically, Eisenhower would complete it. Although he had campaigned in 1952 against New Deal/Fair Deal deficits, vowing to dismantle Washington's vast bureaucracies, he soon discovered that the Cold War made this impossible. Almost apologetically, he said in his first State of the Union address that America "[is] living in an international situation that is neither an emergency demanding full mobilization, nor is it peace. No one can know how long this condition will persist. Consequently, we are forced to learn many new things as we go along."

What Eisenhower had learned was clear from his first budget. "National security," he told his Cabinet, "must not be endangered just for the sake of a balanced budget." This set sparks flying at his April 30, 1953, meeting with GOP congressional leaders. When he said that high defense outlays would mean that the budget, the first to be submitted by a Republican in two decades, would not be balanced, Robert Taft, the Senate majority leader and Eisenhower's key rival the previous year for the GOP presidential nomination, according to contemporary accounts, "went off like a bomb...Fairly shouting and banging his fist on the Cabinet table, Taft declared that `the one primary thing we promised the American people was reduction of expenditures. Now you're taking us down the same road Truman travelled. It's a repudiation of everything we promised in the campaign.'"

In the face of Cold War needs, Taft's protest was futile. Not only did defense spending increase, the military establishment became more firmly entrenched. Eisenhower created the Office of Defense Mobilization and the Foreign Operations Administration, gave the Secretary of Defense six new assistant secretaries, and approved tough anti-subversion laws. He invoked security reasons when he okayed U.S. participation in the St. Lawrence Seaway project and when he submitted a staggeringly costly $101-billion highway program to Congress in 1955. On the Seaway, for example, he cited a National Security Council finding that the waterway would be advantageous to the United States (Labrador ore deposits would become more accessible), while the new highways would speed the transport of materials in case of war and enable cities to be evacuated quickly if threatened by attack.

Sputnik and Dr. Strangelove

In countless ways, meanwhile, Americans were reminded of their vulnerability--the yellow signs designating bomb shelters, nation- wide Civil Defense tests and air-raid drills in schools, American bombers circling on alert around the clock, the uncovering of spies in key federal agencies, the drama of the McCarthy and House Un- American Activities Committee investigations, Soviet tanks crushing Hungarian freedom fighters, the Soviet Union beating the United States into space with Sputnik, John Kennedy's inaugural warning that this is the "hour of maximum danger," the breath-holding, heart-stopping moments when U.S. and Soviet vessels eyed each other during the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev's vow to bury us, Mao's boast that "the East wind prevails over the West wind," and even popular movies such as "Dr. Strangelove," "Fail Safe," "On the Beach," "Seven Days in May," and the James Bond series. The message in all of this was the same: America faced a powerful and cunning enemy and was perched on the edge of thermonuclear catastrophe.

That America was intensely concerned about security was chronicled by public opinion polls. In the first two years after the war, in response to Gallup's standard question "What do you think will be the most important problem facing this country during the next year?," the top answer was "inflation." But by spring 1948, heading the list was "preventing war, danger of war, foreign policy, getting along with Russia."

These remained problem Number One for a quarter-century (except for 1963, when 52 percent of the respondents cited "racial problems" as the most important problem). Not until the mid-1970s, with the nation pressed by persistent inflation, surging energy prices, gasoline lines, and other economic maladies, were security concerns toppled from their perch. In commenting on its May 1976 poll, in fact, the Gallup Organization noted that this "will be the first time in 40 years that presidential candidates will take their campaigns to an electorate concerned mainly with domestic problems and not with questions of war and peace."

Reagan's Lesser Evil

Like Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan came to Washington to dismantle it. And, like Eisenhower, Reagan bowed to the terms of the Cold War bargain. Reagan found that his determination to rebuild and modernize America's arsenal was held hostage by those who sought expanded federal involvement in domestic matters. Liberals in Congress adamantly balked at increasing Pentagon funding unless equal or, more typically, fatter increases went for domestic programs. Although already appalled by the size of the federal government and its cavernous deficits, Reagan conservatives collectively gritted their teeth and went along with the domestic- for-defense spending deal. Defeating the Evil Empire, they rationalized, was worth the price of bigger government.

Conservatives, in fact, had long been gritting their teeth as they wrestled with the dilemma posed for them by the Cold War. It had thrust up a pair of near-equally obnoxious and lethal enemies: Marxism and the Leviathan state. Yet, it seemed, only the latter could crush the former.

George Nash, the historian of modern American conservatism, concludes that "by 1955 the contours of conservatism had in some ways changed considerably from those 15 or even 10 years earlier. Global anti-Communism had triumphed over `isolationism'; the exigencies of the Cold War conflicted, at times, with the tenacious anti-statism characteristic of much of the Right." As a result, conservatives by and large muted their fundamental opposition to huge government so that America could build the arsenal and mobilize the resources to wage the Cold War.

There is probably no more elegant exposition of this dilemma for conservatives than that by a young William F. Buckley Jr. In the January 25, 1952, Commonweal he wrote: "The most important issue of the survival. Here there is apparently some confusion in the ranks of conservatives....The thus-far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union does or does not constitute a threat to the security of the United States, and we have got to decide which. If it does, we shall have to rearrange, sensibly, our battle plans; and this means that we have got to accept Big Government for the duration....And if [conservatives] deem Soviet power as a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington--even with Truman at the reins of it all."

From Macro to Micro

The "duration" of which Buckley wrote now has ended. Washington, however, is slow to realize this. Bush continues to remind America of his foreign policy skills and repeatedly refers to himself as "commander-in-chief," presumably expecting the title's aura to score points with voters. When it doesn't, he complains, as he did in his June speech in Detroit, that Americans are ungrateful for his Persian Gulf war deeds. Summitry similarly has lost its magic. Even the besieged Richard Nixon, just weeks before he was driven from the White House, stabilized his sinking popularity with his July 1974 Moscow meeting with Soviet boss Leonid Brezhnev. Yet Bush's approval numbers fell even after the fanfare of Boris Yeltsin's visit to the White House in June.

The Cold War bargain took about a decade to strike; negotiating the new bargain may take as long. In these negotiations, America has a chance to return to an updated version of the pre-World War II/Cold War bargain with Washington. The macro foreign and defense issues that have spawned macro government can be pushed far down the priority ladder. Up high can be moved the micro problems of communities and individuals. To deal with these effectively, Americans can insist, in scores of ways, on power devolving from the distant federal center back to localities.

In evaluating candidates for office, meanwhile, Americans can be less forgiving. Members of Congress and the president can be held more accountable on honesty, credibility, and other personal qualities. Americans need not tolerate Washington's arrogance and double standards. The result: new restraints can be imposed on both the Imperial Presidency and Imperial Congress. This new attitude surely accounts for the brushfire spread of efforts to limit the terms of federal and local lawmakers.

How the emerging new bargain will drive policy will take time to discern. America is certain to be cool if not icy to attempts to insinuate U.S. troops in foreign conflicts. More broadly, the new bargain probably will make deficit spending nearly as difficult as it was before World War II and will increase resistance to new federal regulations and meddling.

Clinton's Symbolism

Negotiating the new bargain will force Americans to choose between their growing distrust of Washington and their habit, acquired in the past half-century, to "let Washington solve it" when it comes to thorny domestic problems. The need for making such a choice, largely suppressed during the Cold War, now cannot be avoided. How Americans do this will be the central theme of national political debate and could define both major parties as they head for the next century.

In this debate the conservative voice once again can be unequivocal champions of small government. No longer having to support a massive military establishment, conservatives can redeploy their most formidable artillery--strong philosophical principles rooted deeply in the lessons of history--to besiege the state grown fat during the Cold War.

To be sure, some conservatives will be excessively cautious, reluctant to acknowledge the disappearance of America's global enemy. And a handful of other conservatives may find adjusting to post-Cold War reality particularly awkward because they, peculiarly, have become comfortable with big government and assume that they can tame it to advance pet schemes. In the renewed battle against government, these putative conservatives will have to decide where they stand.

Most unpredictable, probably, is what the emerging new bargain means for this year's presidential and congressional politics. It obviously shifts the odds against incumbents; it devalues the Beltway Insider, the expert who handily used to win debates by incanting Washington jargon and acronyms, and the veterans of Cold War foreign and defense policies. By contrast, it likely will reward candidates who can give voice to the language and icons of a bargain in the process of being renegotiated. Bill Clinton's talk of a "New Covenant" seems to recognize the symbolism of the new bargain. The Bush campaign so far does not.

Something out of the ordinary is rattling American politics. These tremors signal much more than the periodic public rumblings for change. They signal the first tectonic shift in America's relations with its capital in a half-century. What the resulting political landscape will look like will depend on leaders who seize the opportunity to channel and influence the public's search for a new bargain.
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Title Annotation:redefining the role of the executive branch after the Cold War
Author:Pines, Burton Yale
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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