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Who's In Control?: Polar Politics and the Sensible Center.

Why now? That's the question I kept asking after the first few chapters of Richard Darman's new book, Who's in Control?. Fifteen years after our Great Fiscal Mistake, and six years after Darman re-read George Bush's lips in the controversial 1990 budget deal, isn't it a little late for the GOP's other "tricky Dick" to offer his side of the story?

Once you're done reading, however, there's a better question: why the first 200 pages? This first chunk of Darman's memoir-cum-manifesto is a plodding rehash of the Reagan years. But The Triumph of Politics, David Stockman's gripping confession, revealed the truth for budget fetishists a decade ago. And tax nuts got the scoop on the big 1986 reform from Alan Murray and Jeff Birnbaum's instant history, Showdown at Gucci Gulch. Since these are the episodes Darman stresses from the 1980s, you're better off relying on reviewers for highlights. But the last 150 pages are must reading, the latest authoritative installment in the saga of How We Gummed Up the Budget and Killed Creative Public Policy for a Quarter of a Century. Darman brings the essential qualifications to tell this story: He was at the center of events; he gets the big picture; and, indispensably, he saved every memo and meeting note he ever wrote.

Darman is one of those rare officials who's been mocked by history and sentenced to clean up a mess he helped create. After all, the able but arrogant Darman man was, as Stockman's sidekick, a key architect of the cut-taxes-but-don't-cut-spending strategy that quadrupled our debt over a decade. As Stockman testified, and Darman confirms, the Reaganites knew things were getting out of hand in mid-1981. With tax cuts getting bid up and spending cuts orphaned, the administration faced a choice between letting the President's plan die or coming back later to stem the tide of red ink they knew it would spawn if passed. "Fix it later," Darman and Stockman concluded famously as they stood on the White House drive, a phrase that Darman says haunted him for years as he sorted out his share of the blame for the devastation of American public finance.

But re-reading Faust (aside: who but Darman would feel compelled to say "re-read"?) was not penance enough. For "later" turned out to be eight years and $3 trillion in debt later, when Bush picked Darman to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the wake of his "read my lips" campaign. With health costs and the S & L bailout pushing deficits toward scary $300 billion heights, Darman's marching orders were to balance the budget without touching popular entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, cutting defense, or raising taxes. Of course, this was mathematically impossible, which left Darman struggling "to find a way to preserve a degree of intellectual integrity and credibility." Resorting to rosy scenarios to help square the circle, Darman failed the test.

Darman says the Bush team knew from day one they'd have to violate the no-tax pledge at some point; they hoped to postpone the Inevitable for at least a year, and then blame the Democrats for extracting taxes as the price for a big deficit-busting deal. Yet when negotiations finally began, Darman explains, George Mitchell and Tom Foley snookered the White House, getting Bush to sign off publicly on the need for new taxes with no concession - say, on cutting capital gains - in return. In retrospect, Darman sees this as an unforgivable blunder, and bemoans the way he and John Sununu let the President down. Done rightly, Darman argues, the tax hike need not have spelled defeat for Bush; after all, Reagan quietly raised taxes year after year following 1981, and all was forgiven.

Politics aside, Darman rightly defends the decision to raise taxes in 1990 as responsible. And his detailed account of the Bush team's internal thinking and the summit negotiations that year are invaluable. The budget deal it produced was at once pathetically inadequate (deficits still rose thereafter) and a major achievement (it introduced spending caps and other budget disciplines that work well, as far as they go, today). Understanding this paradox, which Darman's balanced account allows, becomes a fascinating lesson in the need for equal doses of empathy and outrage when judging those who govern.

Like all memoirists, Darman unintentionally reveals much that isn't pretty. He and Stockman "shared an excessive regard for our own and for each other's brainpower," making one shudder to think how many more trillions in debt we'd have gotten from sub-Mensa men. "In public and private," Darman writes in a typical passage later, "I did my best to suppress my reputed arrogance and combativeness."

In his book, at least, Darman's heroic efforts here fall short, and one senses the relief of a man who can finally uncork an those smarter-than-thou retorts bottled up over a decade of making nice with idiots. Listen as Darman recalls his reaction to the "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" slogan featured in Reagan's empty re-election campaign: "I had to restrain myself," Darma says, "from observing that this vacuous cry had an ironic double meaning." Can't you just see Darman smirking to himself at the conference table? Other chapters, meanwhile, descend into such self-serving reports as Speeches I Gave on Urgent Issues and the Good Press They Got.

Various Darman stories amount to a Bureaucrat's Survival Guide, written by the pro. If in danger, for example - as Darman was after Reagan's disastrous first debate against Mondale, when Nancy was on the warpath - insist that the president fire you personally. (Presidents don't like to do that, so you'll live.) That's what Darman mentor (and Reagan chief of staff) James Baker did for his troubled protege, which soon produced another classic Washington lesson for poor Dick:

[Baker] was a friend, and was ultimately to become a much closer friend. But he had a tendency to be careful when it came to putting his interests at risk ... "You mean you didn't say, `if he goes, I go'?" I half-joked. Baker took this a bit more seriously than I intended. He reminded me that I had always said that if I ever became an undesirable burden for him, I would go - grateful for having had the opportunity to serve ...

For all the intrigue, however, Darman's old-school brand of moderate Republicanism is a much-needed tonic for Newt's GOP. Like Stockman and conservative analyst David Frum before him, Darman exposes the perennial GOP hypocrisy on spending cuts. In the policy sections that close the book, he decries the frivolous pseudo-solutions now peddled by both parties, and rightly argues that until we solve our long-term entitlement problems, we'll never free up the resources to address new public needs. The budget-cutter also reminds us that many solutions will take big money, especially if we're to revive our troubled cities.

Still, in the book as in life, the tension between high-minded policy and careerist maneuvering trails Darman to the end, making you wonder if he's hoping, against the odds, for one more chance to make things right. Consider: He's unduly harsh on Clinton in light of the budget progress during his term. And, after painting Newt as a betraying, grandiose opportunist (his sycophantic notes to Darman during meetings are a treat), Darman closes with sudden appreciation for "Gingrich's larger vision," "empathy," and "inclusiveness." Then there's Bob Dole, whom Darman never mentions without truly elaborate fawning.

Could we survive another Darman stint near the helm? The irony is that Dole's desperate tax cut would squeeze the graying budgeteer right back into the vise Bush created in 1988. But Darman-style progressive centrism is what the country needs. And for all his warts, it's a pity one of the GOP's most experienced public servants should be benched. So I'll say it: If Dole somehow pulls it out, we could do worse than have a savvy bureaucrat with a deep sense of guilt for 15 years of public gridlock helping us untie the Gordian knots.
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Author:Miller, Matthew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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