After the Revolutions, Reality: Voters Accept the Limits of Reform

Jonathan Rauch

In the race for the 2000 presidential nominations, the weather changed, subtly but significantly. In every presidential contest since Jimmy Carter’s in 1976, hostility to a purportedly blundering, intrusive, and duplicitous federal government has figured prominently. And then, in the current race, the wind shifted. Neither of the Democrats, Al Gore or Bill Bradley, bothered with even token government-bashing. As for the Republicans, some of them fulminated against cultural decline, but none denounced overbearing bureaucrats or Washington’s ham-handed ineptitude. “Government must be carefully limited,” said George W. Bush, “but strong and active.” John McCain sounded anti-establishment, anti-Washington themes, but with a difference: his targets were special interests and political money, not government itself. Indeed, he sounded more like a good-government liberal than an anti-government conservative.Instead of running against Washington, the candidates ran against each other.

Why? Perhaps the public’s disillusionment with government has given way to contentment? When people were asked in a September 1999 CBS News poll how often they trusted the government in Washington to “do what is right” (a classic polling question that has been asked regularly since the late 1950s), 38 percent said “just about always” or “most of the time.” Those numbers represent something of a shoring-up of confidence from the extremely low levels—in the high 20s—that predominated in the early 1990s.

The numbers do not, however, denote satisfaction. Trust in government remains at half the levels of the early 1960s and roughly comparable to those of the Reagan years. Asked by CBS whether the federal government usually acts “in the best interests of people like yourself” or “in the best interests of some other group of people,” two-thirds of Republicans and Democrats alike chose the latter. Asked whether the political system needs “only minor changes,” “fundamental changes,” or “has so much wrong with it that we need to completely rebuild it,” fully 80 percent—again, of both parties—chose fundamental change or “completely rebuild.” The public remains deeply disillusioned with Washington.

Why, then, has discontent with government all but evaporated politically? In a word: accommodation. The voters, having grudgingly learned to accept the natural limits on government’s ability to change society, are perhaps now beginning the second half of the job, which is learning to accept the natural limits on society’s ability to change government.

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The period beginning with President Reagan’s election in 1980 and ending, probably, with the ejection of House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1998 amounted to the most concentrated assault on Washington’s establishment since the reforms of the Progressives nearly a century before. Reagan (more precisely, David Stockman, Reagan’s first budget director) attempted to sharply reduce the scope of domestic government, an effort that no president had made before. The 1990s brought Bill Clinton’s grandiose health care reform effort and then, reversing field, Gingrich’s attempt to cut and kill hundreds of federal programs and regulations.

The result was a repeated cycle of promise and disappointment, much like Charlie Brown’s attempts to kick the football. Reagan promised to get big government off the people’s backs; Clinton promised “Fortune 500”-style health benefits to all Americans forever; Gingrich predicted in January of 1995 that by Easter he would “break up the Washington logjam, shift power to the 50 states, break up all the liberal national organizations.” Each group of reformers commenced a headlong charge against the Washington establishment. Each made rapid gains at first and then was sucked into quicksand.

In eight years, Reagan managed to eliminate only four major federal programs and not many more minor ones. Clinton’s health plan collapsed into rubble. As for Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries, the programs they sought to eliminate not only are still there but have seen their average budget grow by an average of 3 percent since 1995 (according to Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute). In 1999, the Republican Congress gave up altogether on uprooting government programs and went with an across-the-board freeze instead.

Reagan, Clinton, and Gingrich were all leaders of extraordinary talent. They all appeared, at least initially, to enjoy public support and a political mandate. Between them, they tried most of the possible permutations of partisan control of the White House and Congress. Nonetheless, they all failed, each more spectacularly than the last.

In my book Government’s End, I argue that Washington’s imperviousness to comprehensive, rationalizing change goes deeper than the politics and personalities of the moment. The trouble is as deep as arithmetic itself. With very rare exceptions, reformers are almost infinitely less committed to eliminating or reforming any one government program than that program’s clients are to maintaining it. The clients, moreover, find easy allies in the reformers’ partisan enemies (Democrats against Reagan and Gingrich, Republicans against Clinton). They also normally have little trouble kindling public mistrust of the reformers’ motives and the reforms’ fairness (Reagan and Gingrich were made to look like mad slashers, Clinton like a Soviet health commissar). Reformers may begin well, but they soon find themselves confronting a coalition that consists of the opposition party, the client groups, and the public. Against that array of forces, there is no hope.

This imbalance of forces, although constantly in flux as political currents shift, never changes fundamentally. If reformers concentrate their energy, fight ferociously, and get some lucky breaks, they can push through important reforms of particular programs. Jimmy Carter’s transportation deregulation, Reagan’s tax reform, and Gingrich’s welfare reform show that once or perhaps twice in a decade politicians can concentrate their energies and enact a landmark reform (of a program or governmental sector, however; not of the whole government). Now and then, they can push a boat across the rapids. But they cannot change the strength or the direction of the current. The bulk of what Washington does remains under the control of the client groups and their coalitions of interest.

If I am right, what you see in Washington today is more or less what you get, forever: a teeming ecology of programs that adapt individually to serve their clients and to stay in business, but that are not collectively susceptible to any comprehensive rationalization or reform. Washington will change constantly, but the nature of its change will be primarily bottom-up and client driven, rather than top-down and voter driven. American voters and politicians are hardly helpless; but they have much less real control over the size, composition, and mission of their government than the civics books promise.

A paradoxical implication is that for the people to get more by way of effective reform, they must expect less. The “revolutionaries” of the past two decades defined success out of reach. Large reforms of significant programs are important, often essential. But when politicians and the public demand nothing less than the impossible—a transformation of government itself—the merely possible looks like failure. Failure breeds cynicism, which in turn feeds backlash, which generates yet more impossible demands for reform. Again and again, the public and politicians take aim at the football and land on their back.

Americans are realistic idealists who, confronted with persistent failure, conform their expectations to reality. They adjust. People do not like what they see in Washington, but they are becoming reconciled to living with government as it is and to changing it in the limited but incrementally useful ways in which it can be changed. The good news, in short, is that the bad news is perhaps finally “in the market” of politics. In the electorate’s current mood may lie the beginning of a more productive and less pathological relationship between Washington and its public.