2009-04-10 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Pendulums and Politics

In early 1996 I found myself at a meeting of top level management in New York City's Human Resources Administration in then HRA Commissioner Marva Hammons' personal conference room. Everyone was sitting around a big polished wood table bemoaning the Republican takeover of Congress that had occurred around that time and the implications of the new Welfare Reform law which President Clinton had recently signed.

The new law replaced the old openended federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (subsidizing state and local welfare programs with an unending flow of federal monies) with one that would involve a capped, lump sum payment to localities designed to wean welfare recipients off the dole. Welfare advocacy groups and the city's own welfare officials at HRA were beside themselves. Advocates in the welfare community were predicting disaster and program failure because people would soon be starving and on the streets, they said. (It never happened.)

HRA management, for its part, was pulling the collective hair from its head over having to deal with managing the city's welfare rolls on a fixed income (since the capped, lump sum payments wouldn't cover everybody forever as the old system had). One individual at the table, a Giuliani appointee, was particularly upset over the recent Republican victories and what they signified and she was leading the chorus of complaints and cries of woe.

I was at that meeting as a representative of one of the Giuliani administration's deputy mayors and was astonished at the anti-Republican sentiment around that table from officials ostensibly serving in the Giuliani administration. After all, wasn't Giluiani a Republican and hadn't he been elected on a platform that included welfare reform? Didn't his administration support this reform we were now meeting to figure out how to deal with? And yet here were Giuliani appointees lined up with those who opposed the very reforms he had championed. It was my first serious encounter with the power of the permanent bureaucracy.

Of course I knew that most of the top level people there were old HRA hands who had been around at least since the Koch administration and maybe earlier, having been reappointed or confirmed in their jobs by the Giuliani administration. I, too, had come out of that HRA milieu, having worked my way up in the agency until the Dinkins administration had obliged me to find a new berth in Sanitation because new Dinkins-appointed HRA management had wanted to sweep out the old Koch people. (I was wrongly seen by them as a political appointee, but that's another story.) Now I had come back as a representative of the Giuliani administration and was sitting there, astonished to see the hostility with which policies favored by our mayor were viewed. Nevertheless, I thought they were worried for nothing and told the woman leading the complaints exactly this.

"Everything happens in cycles," I said to her and the other assembled bigwigs. "We're just seeing the swing of the pendulum here. In fact," I went on, "it's probably at its farthest point now and Republican dominance will soon recede." Being a Republican by then (having switched my affiliations a few years earlier) I took no joy in making this point but figured I was being both realistic and honest. My comment was met by incredulous stares — and silence.

In the midst of the Republican flood tide, they could not imagine that there would ever be an ebb. Of course, today the ebb has come with a vengeance as we're in the midst of a Democratic surge that has regained all the levers of power in Washington for that party and seems to dominate most state and local governments across the nation.

Here in New York State, the Democratic majority running things has met the current economic downturn, not by a return to fiscal prudence, as one might hope, but with another record breaking budget kicking up state spending to new and previously undreamed of levels while piling on new taxes and fees.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg's one time "temporary" real estate tax surcharge is now presumed permanent by all and sundry, while city officials contemplate raising tolls and imposing new fees of their own to make municipal ends meet. Of course, in Washington we have a new president who speaks wonderfully but who has demonstrated, since taking office, that he and his Democratic allies in Congress mean to reverse years of Republican policies by growing government into new areas and pushing the nation into a vast sea of new debt in the guise of economic stimulus.

If President Obama is to be taken seriously, and there's no reason to think he shouldn't be, he's also about to reduce defense spending, ratchet back our efforts to modernize our weapon systems, and subordinate American interests to the global institutions and leadership that have already failed to halt Iran's march to nuclearization, North Korea's efforts to develop ballistic missiles, and Russia's return to domination of its neighbors. The Europe that loves Obama also hates American pre-eminence on the world stage and our new president seems willing to play to that antipathy by talking down the nation he is charged with leading.

True enough, Republicans have mostly themselves to blame for the turnabout that has now pushed the national pendulum so far to the left. Republicans in Congress couldn't keep their priorities straight while they had the majority.

Instead of hewing to a fiscally prudent spending regimen, they preferred to do what their Democratic predecessors had done, gobbling up pork for their own districts to enhance their reelection prospects while making no serious effort to rein spending in more generally. Former President Bush can't get off scot-free either because he failed to lead his party toward fiscal prudence, allowing social conservatism to dominate the administration narrative. Social conservatism, while it inspires a large segment of the Republican base, is a red flag to many other Americans and especially to the media which gathered like piranha to devour the Bush White House and its allies.

Now, in reaction to the years of accumulated Republican missteps and blunders, the country has gone massively Democratic. But these are not your father's Democrats. Today's breed has accumulated years of pent-up demand and the Obama administration seems intent on fulfilling it all, from massive new spending to reducing America's global profile so that we do not demand too much from others, do not act too emphatically in our own interests, and do not trigger the envy and resentment of the world. Well shouldn't we be humbler and less full of ourselves? It's what Americans seem to have voted for, after all, so it's hard to complain when the new administration in Washington acts to give us what we collectively want. But if the pendulum can sometimes swing too far in one direction, can it swing too far in the other?

The great fear among many today is that all the new governing party's changes will create a permanent majority for European style big government and for the big taxes and big spending that inevitably go along with that. It's what most of today's Democrats seem to want, isn't it, despite the fact that Western Europe's welfare states have consistently lagged America in economic growth and prosperity throughout recent decades. If today's Democrats have their way, that's where we're going so it's important to ask, before we actually get there, if there's any chance the national pendulum can swing back again from that?

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