February 23, 1996

February 23, 1996 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED022396c: Liberalism's Last Stand

Liberals are making a big deal out of President Clinton's rebounding poll numbers, seeing in them a repudiation of Congress' conservatism. Nice try, but the budget battle between Congress and the White House - the occasion for the president's popularity spike - is actually liberalism's last stand.

Traditionally three pillars have propped up the liberal nanny state: the federal tax system, entitlement programs and special-interest pork. The budget debate, by placing the national focus squarely on fiscal sanity and common sense, has dealt a severe blow to all three.

Start with entitlements. Even after the 1994 elections gave conservatives control of Congress for the first time in a generation, nobody expected lawmakers to tackle the No. 1 enemy of fiscal restraint: entitlement spending. Yet one year later, serious efforts are underway to reform three of the four largest entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and cash welfare (known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children).

Liberals are willing to go to incredible lengths to defend the status quo -- for example, by lying about Medicare "cuts" when spending would rise from $4,800 to $7,100 per beneficiary. Entitlements used to be the liberals' ace in the hole when Americans thought the "rich" were funding them. But now that we know who's really paying -- our children - even Americans who believe strongly in the entitlement programs concede we have to make reforms.

Further frustrating liberals is the fact that the days of freewheeling pork-barrel spending are coming to an end. While Congress' 1996 spending bills contain their share of pork, there's a lot less than in the past. The transportation appropriations bill, for example, eliminated all "highway demonstration projects," which cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year. As the traditional beneficiaries of the pork-barrel system liberals are grieving its impending demise.

Finally, there's taxes. It is inconceivable that anyone but the most hidebound liberal would argue that America needs a tax hike. On the contrary, the debate today is not over whether to cut taxes, but by how much. This is true even though Congress is in the midst of a historic effort to balance the budget. Liberals hoped the need to eliminate the deficit would compel Americans to accept high taxes as a necessary evil, at least for the time being. Not so. Most Americans want both a balanced budget and tax cuts. If that means cutting spending more, so be it.

Moreover, the budget debate is only the first round in the larger fight over taxes. As those of us who served on the Kemp Commission on tax reform (which recently came out in support of a flat tax) know full well, the current system has virtually no defenders. Not only is it too costly, forcing Americans to send an average of one-fourth of their income to Washington, but it is unfair, overly complex, anti-investment and punitive. How in the world are liberals going to defend such a system?

Liberals love to point out that the 104th Congress has accomplished only a small part of its agenda. Yet from a conservative standpoint this is a huge victory. By simply changing the terms of the debate, conservatives both in and out of Congress have seen to it that the country's inexorable march toward bigger government has been halted in its tracks.

On the issues that matter -- taxes, entitlements, and the corrupt and costly pork-barrel system -- the conservative philosophy has routed liberalism. That's why the budget debate which is really a proxy for the larger battle over the size and scope and government -- is liberalism's last stand.

Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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