Politics as Pleasantville

It’s hard to notice amid the rat-a-tat of attack ads and the Mark Hanna-like excesses of political buckraking, but politics has gone completely retro. Issues and themes that were already green with moss during the 1950s keep cropping up during this last campaign of the American Century. This is not a prelude to a James Carvillian rant demonizing Ken Starr as the second coming of Joe McCarthy. Chatterbox–who has been racking up the frequent-flier mileage as he swoops down on congressional races in Ohio, Wisconsin and Washington State–has picked up more subtle emanations from the Silent ‘50s.

It started back in January when Bill Clinton, reeling from the first deadly outbreak of Monica Madness, proclaimed in his State of the Union Address, “Let’s make this commitment–Social Security first.” The notion of ear-marking the budget surplus to shore up the Social Security Trust Fund was pure snake oil economically, but it was an adroit political gambit. Dispirited Democrats suddenly had a voter-friendly rationale to resist the Republican clamor for more and better tax cuts.

But, as it always does in politics, such gamesmanship came with a high price. Thanks to Clinton, the dialogue was pushed so far to the right that it would make a reborn Bob Taft seem like a socialist. Somehow Republicans and Democrats alike have gotten it into their heads that there is something wantonly spendthrift, even sinful, about ever wanting to touch the budget surplus. Any day now I expect to see an old-fashioned liberal like Tom Harkin on Jerry Springer with the shocking on-screen caption, “He Wants To Spend the Surplus.”

In Wisconsin earlier this week, GOP Senate candidate Mark Neumann spoke fervently about “giving America to our children debt- free.” Somehow in Neumann’s fantasy world the $5.5 trillion national debt can disappear while still leaving room for tax cuts. But in this conservative environment, even liberals do not dare talk about dipping into the surplus for any new spending programs. Neumann’s embattled rival, high-minded Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, instead declared at a retirement home, “We must stop people like Congressman Neumann from stealing from Social Security to pay for tax cuts.”

This kind of parsimonious politics is a throwback to the Eisenhower Administration. As Ike speechwriter Emmett John Hughes recounted in his memoir, The Ordeal of Power, Treasury Secretary George Humphrey “enlivened almost every Cabinet session with little polemics on checking deficits, spoken as ardently as [John Foster] Dulles’ exhortations on checking Communists. And Humphrey at times almost seemed to view the deficits as the more menacing of the two enemies.” But in a Cabinet where “Engine Charlie” Wilson, a former GM exec, was Secretary of Defense, there was one domestic problem so grave that it prompted Eisenhower to loosen the purse strings–traffic. The Interstate Highway System, sold as a way to speed troop movements, remains a legacy of the “I Like Ike” era as enduring as Mousekeeteer ears.

Guess what? Traffic is back as an unchronicled sleeper issue in this year’s congressional campaigns. In the Seattle area, House candidate Jay Inslee (best known as the first Democrat in a tight race to air an anti-impeachment ad) has been regularly hitting the highways during rush hour to publicize traffic bottlenecks. (And they call Al D’Amato “Senator Pothole”). In a debate in Illinois 16th District, GOP challenger Mark Baker derided incumbent Lane Evans’ indifference to traffic snarls in the Quad Cities. Baker bragged that, if elected, Newt Gingrich has promised him a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. And in a bumper-car House race in southern Ohio, vulnerable Democrat Ted Strickland is being slammed in TV ads by Republican Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister for blocking her plan to bring $320 million in federal road- building funds to this rural district.

Such is the brain-dead state of political debate in the shank end of the Clinton years. With America awash in nostalgia for the soulless 1950s, Chatterbox is predicting that the next step is for some candidate to promise in a dramatic election-eve broadcast, “I will go to Korea.”

Walter Shapiro