That Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry last week tried to sell himself to the American people as a fiscally responsible moderate isn’t surprising.
The same pose paid impressive political dividends for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who not only appeared to break the tax and spend mold of most Democrats but even pledged to “reinvent” the federal government.
Much of this was window dressing, driven by the practical realization that fiscal irresponsibility was turning voters off to their party. But the only reason a liberal Democrat can get away with such a maneuver — then and now — is that Republicans, while widely recognized during the Reagan era as the party of smaller government and fiscal responsibility, somehow along the way have abandoned that political high ground.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So Clinton and Gore were only too happy to step in when the first George Bush failed to carry on the fiscally conservative themes championed by Ronald Reagan.
Republicans further lost credibility as deficit hawks and government waste-fighters after the 1994 elections. Majority status handed them the power of the purse strings — a power that seemingly can’t help but corrupt — with predictable results on fiscal restraint.
Roman orgies were conducted with more decorum.
Today, with Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress (tenuously, to be sure) and deficits soaring to record highs, the “new Democrat” path blazed by Clinton is even easier for Kerry to follow. The senator’s purportedly deficit-busting proposals aren’t exactly earthshaking: He pledged to cut 100,000 federal contractor jobs, freeze travel budgets, “streamline” agencies and even pare some of his own program initiatives in order to cut the current deficit by half in four years.
By federal government standards, this amounts to peanuts, chicken feed, diddly squat. And it’s uncertain whether one of the Senate’s most liberal member’s sudden reincarnation as a budget hawk is something informed members of the public will swallow.
But Kerry’s proposals are significant in at least one sense — because as deficient as they are, they still sharply contrast the complete indifference shown to such matters by the president and too many Republicans in Congress. Their neglect of what was once a bread-and-butter issue for the GOP has allowed even a liberal like John Kerry to outflank (and out fox) them on the issue.