The Crime of '81

excerpted from the book

Liberty Under Siege

by Walter Karp

Franklin Square Press, 1988, paper




The Crime of '81

The President-elect has fine and potent gifts, fully commands the arts of popularity. He is a speaker, a rhetor, a master of euphemism and the perfect half-truth, has immense powers of personal attraction, has about him an air of manly resolve, invincible self-assurance, unblemished candor, yet, withal, lightness and charm and ebullience. "There was an ease in his manner." So Copperfield describes J. Steerforth, hero of the school. "A gay and light manner it was, but not swaggering-which I still believe to have borne a kind of enchantment with it. I still believe him, in virtue of his carriage, his animal spirits, his delightful voice, his handsome face and figure, and, for aught I know, of some inborn power of attraction besides (which I think a few people possess), to have carried a spell with him to which it was a natural weakness to yield and which not many persons could withstand." Much like Steerforth, hero of the school, does Ronald Reagan appear in public.

Yet what brutal truncation, what cutting back of the plant, produces that splendid blossom! What lopping away of knowledge, of curiosity; of truthfulness, to produce that public aura of candor and confidence. What lopping away of realism, foresight, even the very capacity to govern. Reagan is ignorant, deliberately, willfully ignorant, scarcely knows who works for him, rarely asks a penetrating question. William Casey, his campaign manager, his intelligence director, the innermost member of his inner circle, describes Reagan as passive, friendless, "strange." "He gave no orders, no commands, asked for no information, expressed no urgency." So a startled David Stockman observes at his first informal meetings with the President-elect, who will spend two years in the White House without learning that most Soviet missiles are based on the land. His arms control proposals sound fairer to him if he does not know and so he never inquires. The new budget director tells the President-elect that no revenue "feedback" will be forthcoming from the proposed Kemp-Roth tax cut. Reagan looks puzzled, but says not a word. What happened to the heart and soul of his promise to the people? Reagan does not care to know. What good would the knowledge do him? How can he maintain that marvelous air of candor if he knows for certain he is telling a lie?

For candor's sake and seeming, intellectual honesty must be lopped away and with it the ability to see the true aspect of things. A Democratic governor warns Reagan of forthcoming deficits, to which Reagan angrily replies, "We didn't invent deficit spending"-the idea of it is not his and so how can he be held responsible for his deficits? "He seemed unable to acknowledge that he might have made a mistake," Gerald Ford says of Reagan in his memoirs. Bottomless self-deception protects the public blossom-the self-deception of a man who spent World War II serving in the Air Force at home describing himself as "coming back" from the war, eager "to make love" to his wife. "All his war-making has been in his mind," says Garry Wills, "and he will make it the way he wants." An appalling capacity for repelling truth and believing falsehood is the one truly outstanding gift of the fortieth President. "He believes that he can think a thing true and it will be true," says a Democratic leader. Reagan is "not devious," so a longtime associate says. "He doesn't deliberately alter things. Things go into his mind and whirl around and come out how he likes." Or the unwelcome information is simply spurned, becomes noninformation. "If you bring him facts that don't fit into what he wants to believe he just rejects them," Majority Leader Wright remarks six years hence. Or it leaves Reagan "depressed," for harsh reality, bad news on television, readily dispirits the ebullient popular leader. "He gets that pained look," says an aide, "and you don't want to make him suffer"-and wither the blossom of public ebullience.

What, then, is the source of Reagan's wonderful air of resolve? It, too, is mainly a hothouse bloom, artfully cultivated. "What's so incredible is Reagan's sense of confidence, but it is like death not knowing itself," says an oddly poetical ex-aide of the President's. No real inner strength supports that air of assurance, but rather a desperate clinging to a dogma-the virtues of "the market" and the evils of "government"-and headlong evasion of the terrors of doubt. So Reagan, the most "ideological" of American leaders, often calls upon Edwin Meese III, former county sheriff, now his principal adviser, to pick out from among a series of "options" the "Reaganite" position, lacking the nerve himself to face contradictions and conflicts, lacking the courage, too, to look ahead, or think ahead, to where his dogmas might lead, preferring blind optimism, instead, the faith, says Mrs. Reagan curtly, "that if you let something go, it will eventually work itself out. Well, it isn't always so." Clinging to dogma, Reagan finds unbearable the sight of his advisers disputing; it gives me "knots in my stomach"-knots of terror, for if "Reaganites" disagree is there not a rip, a rent, a tear in the seamless web of "Reaganism"? So Meese, protecting the precious blossom of confidence, constructs "a bubble of obliviousness" around Reagan, as sharp-eyed Stockman observes. "Whenever there was an argument, Meese would step in and tell us to take our arguments to some other ad hoc forum. The President would smile and say, 'Okay, you fellas work it out."' When the "fellas" do so, endorsement generally follows and thus affairs of state are managed.

Reagan does not govern because he dares not govern, for reality rushes in upon governors-facts and figures, harsh and conflicting, sparing no dogmas, bursting all bubbles-and the Reagan blossom-resolute, candid, ebullient-would wither and die. General Haig, newly named Secretary of State, attends his first Cabinet meeting and discovers to his horror that Meese and James Baker, two of Reagan's triumvirate of senior advisers, have taken seats at the great Cabinet table. "A startling departure from tradition," says outraged Haig; mere presidential aides, flunkies, adjutants, seated in the place reserved for the great sworn officers of state, confirmed by the advice and consent of the august Senate? "Robert Haldeman and John Ehrlichman at the height of their pride would never have dared such an act of lese majesty." But Reagan's advisers are not mere "President's men." They are "managers of the presidency," so Haig belatedly discovers. Every morning at nine they meet the President in the Oval Office and give him the "line," Stockman calls it, on what he is supposed to think about "any significant topic in the morning's newspapers-El Salvador, unemployment, whatever"-whatever being the vast array of public events about which Reagan will not or cannot be bothered to think for himself.

The party leaders have gone into "retreat," have pondered party past, present and future on Chesapeake Bay. They emerge and announce to the world that they have been utterly repudiated by the American people. Poll us no polls, says the Democratic leadership. We have been swept away in a "conservative tide." Democratic leaders profess themselves ) stunned, crushed, "shell-shocked," it is said, by the appalling extent of Carter's defeat, after tearing him to shreds for four years, which shredding has cost them control of the Senate, doubtless a genuine shock. Only one course lies open for the popular party, swept away, as it were, by fiat. We must give the new President-elect a free hand-and more: a helping hand, whatever is needful. "Uniformly, in one interview after another," so the Washington Post reports on the morning of November 17, "Democrats from House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (DMass.) on down talked about cooperating with the President-elect and giving the GOP a chance." Abject self-abasement is democracy's order of the day. "We're going to cooperate with the President," says Speaker Tip. "It's America first and party second." Senator Byrd, in his Heepish element, will not be outdone by Tip. "We shall be cooperative. We shall offer our assistance. We certainly want to see the new President succeed." At what, pray tell? At the generating of huge strangling deficits, paralyzing the popular party for years to come?

Carter is an evident disaster; ergo, says Oligarchy, rigorously logical, party democracy is disastrous as well. Is not Carter's failure to get on with us absolute proof, ocular proof, proof incontrovertible, that we must alter the system that brought the presidency to him? Thus Oligarchy argues and thus parrot the pundits, being pundits, in the main, by virtue of parroting. Since "the people have acquired the power to nominate Presidents... the governments they elect have in the process lost the authority needed to govern." Thus the eminent James Reston of the Times. Carter failed because he came to the 'White House without "the alliances that made it possible for him to organize the coalitions and support necessary to lead a government." Thus David Broder of the Post, twelve years in mourning for the "death of the 'parties." "Jimmy Carter, the outsider, would not have been the nominee in 1976 of an organized political party; he is what can happen when the choice of party leader is taken entirely out of the hands of the party elite and turned over to the people." Thus James Sundquist of the Brookings Institute, bringing Political Science to bear on the Great Matter. All being in complete agreement that the trashing of democracy by Oligarchy demonstrates the preeminent virtues of Oligarchy, a Democratic Party commission will shortly be formed to alter the party rules so that the powerful party few shall once again have the last word-or perhaps even the first word-as to who will and who will not traverse the Democratic road to the 'White House. Thus Power, as usual, dictates to Thought, or what passes for thought in this corrupted public realm of ours, where knaves hire fools to protect them.

The President-elect and his wife are breaking bread with "the capital's smart set" at a sitdown dinner for fifty at "the toney F Street Club"! It is Reagan's intention to demonstrate "that notwithstanding his anti-Washington rhetoric, he belongs," so Newsweek reports, agog with delight. "He will mix with the lords and ladies of Washington society toward whom Carter was standoffish." Two days later there is a dinner for the Reagans at the home of columnist George Will. In attendance is Katherine Graham, owner of the Post and Newsweek both, "empress of the limousine liberal set," it is said. No "set" is more loathed, loathed to the point of insanity, by the Right, but so delighted is its "empress" with the Reagans that she invites them next month to a party in turn, where they meet the new Democratic Ward Heeler-in-Chief, Lane Kirkland, Meany's heir apparent come into his legacy at last. Some thirty-two of Kirkland's Present Danger colleagues will find a place in the Reagan administration, seven of them founding members of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority. Not even our fiery liberal chieftain Senator Kennedy is missing from the great November Acclamation. He pays a call on the visiting Reagans and emerges "talking of the need for unity." Our prince of divisiveness crying up unity! What firmer proof is needed than this, fellow citizens, that Ronald Reagan, purveyor of supply-side quackery and many another design on your liberties, merits and deserves your deep faith and trust!

No wonder the President-elect so effortlessly "conquered the capital he ran so long and so hard against." The "capital" has surrendered in advance, carrying with it the Washington press corps, which is miraculously restored to "pre-Watergate" deference. "Lions [have] become lambs, typewriters are beaten into plowshares and rear ends at the White House become objects for kissing rather than kicking," says Jody Powell, embittered by the "double standard." A "suddenly docile press corps," so a press historian puts it, will cushion and protect President Reagan in the weeks and months and years to come-no need to fear gimlet eyes-though the President and his men work ceaselessly to undermine the freeness of the press, which finds it must defer to its very tormentors, for Oligarchy will have it so and the press has no inner life or force of its own.

Bipartisan darkness descends on the public realm, preparation for the rule of the Right.

It was time to be rich again," a gossip writer exclaims, for the rich are no longer "the rich," having become in the gathering darkness "those who save and invest," fructifying the earth. Nor are the poor and needy the poor and needy any longer; they are fast becoming in this gathering gloom a "special interest lobby," a "spending constituency." a "social pork barrel we can no longer afford."

The rich are not rich enough! The poor are not poor enough! Inequality deepened still more supplies the key to prosperity!

And so, says a Washington dowager, in this happy season of political darkness, "You don't have to be ashamed of what you have anymore. At the tea parties the children come in blue velvet and the ladies in $300 suits. You discuss difficulties with maids and you discuss social events." In safety! Without fear of reprisal! As if she had passed through the Reign of Terror, seen Robespierre overthrown, and had finally reached the warm shores of Thermidor-so frightening is revived republicanism to Power in America. For truly there is something Thermidorean in the air this winter as wealth swarms in upon Washington to celebrate Reagan's Inaugural and the restoration of its power and glory. "An armada of 400 corporate jets snarled traffic at National Airport," reports Fortune. "A far cry;" notes Newsweek, "from the populist Peanut Special that chugged up from Georgia for the Inaugural four years ago." No republican simplicity will blight the occasion this time. Instead, "the country's basic values" will be celebrated this Inaugural, says Charles Wick, Reagan's longtime friend and master of the Inaugural revels: four days of dinners, parties and galas, four days of wealth on lavish display, clogging the streets in a new lavish way. "Beautiful Reagan intimate Betsy Bloomingdale leaped into Dupont Circle to help clear a traffic jam of limousines," Newsweek notes in the new Thermidorean style. It is "safe again to put on diamonds, designer gowns and-generally speaking-the dog," the Post assures its society-page readers. "Laughter is in," says a party reveler, "because Ronald Reagan has a funny bone. His friend Frank Sinatra says that nobody has a funny bone like Ron's." Thermidorean, too, is the twelve-page Inaugural brochure which devotes just one trifling paragraph of its celebration of "the country's basic values" to the swearing-in ceremony, and to the great presidential oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," which oath the new President, for the life of him, cannot understand and will not bother to heed, not finding it, perhaps, quite "basic" enough. As he completes his brief Inaugural address, blaming "government" for all our ills, the new President points out the splendid sights on the great Mall before him-ahead the monument to Washington, father of our country, and "off to one side the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence," says the new President, while at that very moment, give or take a few minutes, Jefferson's portrait is being taken down from a White House wall and Calvin Coolidge's put up in its place.

The President is calling for fiscal restraint. "Can we who man the ship of state deny that it is somewhat out of control? Our national debt is approaching one trillion dollars." Mere paring of waste and ' abuse, a campaign promise, will not suffice: $48.6 billion must be cut from the fiscal 1982 budget, the largest single reduction in domestic spending ever proposed by a President. Wondrous to behold, however, "fiscal restraint" in this Thermidorean season! For $49 billion will be added to the Pentagon's spending authority this year-the largest single increase ever proposed by a President in peacetime, proposed atop a $30 billion increase enacted a mere eleven weeks ago by the lame-duck Dixie-Daley Congress. "I am committed to stopping the spending juggernaut," says the President, as he launches a new spending juggernaut on the night of February 18. No fiscal restraint whatever but rather a vast fiscal shift-from domestic commonweal to warfare state ...

On March 4, congress receives the detailed military budget, a truly astonishing prospectus. The $222.2 billion defense appropriation for fiscal 1982, an immense sudden increase in itself, merely commences a five-year military buildup, growth set at 7 percent a year, discounting inflation; $1.5 trillion to be spent in all. We were the most powerful nation on earth in 1980, with an annual defense budget of $142 billion. We are to spend $367 billion a year by 1986 in this era of "fiscal restraint" and "getting federal spending under control"! Can a republic die of lies? If so, we are dying.

A reckless, careless, feckless economic menace, too, is this new wanton military spending juggernaut: consumer of savings and capital, supposedly so desperately needed; consumer of skilled labor, engineers, scientists, research facilities, the precious tools of enhanced productivity, supposedly so urgently needed. How little economics there is in all this Thermidorean economic babble! The Reaction, corrupt politics, rules all.

... And how is this vast, vile engine of waste received in Congress? A "warm welcome" greets it, so Congressional Quarterly reports. The $222.2 billion requested for fiscal 1982 "would appear to be sufficient," writes the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, one Melvin Price, to Budget Committee chairman Jones, but the $367 billion planned for fiscal 1986 may be-too little! The honorable Price fears the administration may be underestimating inflation and endangering the national security. The honorable Price does offer a word of advice. The Pentagon must not "appear" profligate, or the American people might take it amiss. Let Pentagon profligacy nonappear, disappear-by secrecy, concealments, by silencing Pentagon "whistle blowers"-patriots and precisians who cannot bear the ghastly sight of such wanton waste, by plans already afoot within the bowels of the Executive to turn the whole vast engine of waste into a single seamless secret of state beyond the scrutiny of the American people, for the crime of '81, the crime against our sovereignty, generates an endless stream of supporting crimes against our sovereignty.

On March 10, Congress receives Reagan's domestic budget message-an exercise in frugality truly odious in its cruelty, in its rank injustice, in its base and hideous hypocrisy. Student loans to be cut by $1.2 billion-a 9 percent reduction in hopes for a college education; medical care for the poor reduced by $500 million; school lunch and child nutrition programs reduced by $1.8 billion; aid to dependent children reduced by 13 percent; working mothers of three deprived of welfare benefits for earning a few thousand dollars a year; unemployment compensation reduced; home mortgage loans reduced-this by a President who talks so lovingly of the "American dream"; the disabled subjected to harsh new eligibility requirements; the minimum Social Security benefit-$122 a month on the average-eliminated for 3 million people; public housing cut so drastically that existing housing may rot from demoralizing neglect; the food stamp program reduced by $2.3 billion-an 11 percent reduction adversely affecting 22 million Americans; the Legal Services Corporation to be wiped out entirely, a savings of $321.3 million to deprive the poor of fair trials and leave them to the caprice of welfare bureaucrats-this by a President who endlessly inveighs against the evils of bureaucracy.

The poor are financing the Navy's three fisc-squandering nuclear carriers. That is the long and the short of it. The waning hopes of poor working people for a home of their own or college for a child will finance the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Small farmers will lose their family farms to pay for the B-1 bomber; hunger and homelessness will defray the salaries of the Pentagon's 75,000 needless new civilian employees. The domestic realm will be devoured to finance the warfare state, to fatten the great military-industrial clients of Oligarchy, whose political action committees pour wealth into the hands of party leaders.

On May 7, the Reagan budget triumphs grandly in the Democratic House, 253 to 176; a "milestone" victory for Reagan, the press reports; a juggernaut is in the making, the Democrats are in "disarray"-sixty-three of them have deserted to the President's banner. "Tip O'Neill has become Ronald Reagan's secret weapon," William Safire of the Times writes a few days later, has become "a boon to Republicans seeking to portray the Democratic Party as a listless hulk," and a demoralizing spectacle to Democrats ...

"What is wrong with Reagan's tax plan has grown all too apparent by mid-May, so apparent it stands on the verge of collapse, requires desperate White House lying about its own budget forecasts, requires, most of all, the Speaker's supreme feat of "cooperation" with the rule of the Right.

The chief difficulty, no doubt, is the business community's deep silent loathing of the President's huge, 30 percent reduction in the personal income tax-"Kemp-Roth" in congressional parlance; supply-side economics in general, which business leaders regard as a fraud and a hoax, "an economic theory based on alchemy," says Peter Solomon of Lehman Brothers, the great New York banking house, alas, not until this coming October, corporate lips being sealed this spring by a sordid bargain. The "business community" will keep its collective mouth shut about the fantasy of "revenue feedback"; about the near certainty that people will spend, not save, their tax-reduction money; about the near certainty, too, of large and dangerous budget deficits. In return for silent corporate mouths, the administration has agreed to support a massive reduction in the corporate income tax - $500 billion over ten years, 80 percent of which will go to the largest one-tenth of 1 percent of American corporations, "the biggest single tax break in American history"-hush money, more accurately achieved chiefly by means of a highly accelerated tax write-off of depreciating plants, buildings and equipment. In return for silence over the quackery and menace of Kemp-Roth, the White House champions of the "free market" will avert their eyes from the fact that the corporate tax cut favors investment in shopping centers, commercial buildings and corporate mergers-what the U.S. economy needs least; favors Big Business at its most inept-"social security for the disabled large corporation," economic historian Emma Rothschild calls it; makes good investments bad and bad investments good; comprises, therefore, one of the most massive intrusions into the "free market" ever contemplated by the federal government-about which intrusion the "free market" champions within the 'White House and their "conservative" allies without will keep their collective mouths shut. Thus are we governed in the Age of Reaction-by silence, lies Land collusion.

Three days after the resounding editorial, the New York Time Magazine carries a deadly critique of the entire Reagan tax plan by economist Thurow. To arguments already made by Fortune (and elsewhere in freer, pre-Reagan days) Thurow notes that the proposed reduction from 70 percent to 50 percent in the maximum tax on unearned income-an "incentive" for the rich upon which Reagan and Rostenkowski wholeheartedly agree-will not encourage "productive" investment, but more tax shelters and real estate speculation: gross economic folly pitilessly conjoined to gross economic privilege. For consider this: The Reagan-Rostenkowski bonanza for "those who save and invest" lowers the tax paid by millionaire idlers to a level below the maximum rate paid by a laboring hind toiling for $12,000 a year to support a family of four.

Injustice and folly odiously conjoined-the injustice truly brutal and coarse, virtual class warfare, historian Arthur Schlesinger calls it on the pages of the Wall Street Journal in early June. What the President describes as "an equal reduction in everyone's taxes" is sharply unequal in its result. According to the Treasury Department, some 35 percent of the total reduction will go to the wealthiest 5 percent of the country, which already enjoys a 16 percent cut in taxes with no visible economic benefit to the nation, as if that mattered to anyone-from the "millionaires' relief act" of 1978. A mere 9 percent of the total reduction goes to the lower half of the population, whose tax burden has increased 50 percent since the triumph of "trickledown" in 1978. The combination of tax cuts and budget cuts will eventually make the richest one million households richer by more than $8,000 a year and the poorest 19 million households poorer by a year-a willful deepening of inequality in America.

In late April, the 'White House declares a moratorium on the preparation and dissemination of government publications in the name of the new frugality. "Elimination of wasteful spending on government periodicals" inaugurates a program of concentrating inside the 'White House, under cover of executive privilege, unprecedented presidential control-and constriction-of public information, our information, without which "popular government," warned James Madison, "is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps to both"-regarded by Ed Meese, current triumvir and future Attorney General, as "government property;" just as he regards the American Civil Liberties Union as a "criminals' lobby," so he says in a speech delivered this May.

'Whatever can be hidden the administration hides. Under the direction of the 'White House the agencies of the Executive Branch evade public accountability provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act. New regulations are issued as mere "guidelines" so that the public need not be notified. Existing regulations are altered by secret internal memoranda, not without danger of public exposure. The Freedom of Information Act, noble child of the democratic awakening, poses the danger, for it gives a sovereign, self-governing people the power "to force the federal bureaucracy to disgorge rulings made without public scrutiny and documents more politically embarrassing than secret," so conservative Safire points out this May in defense of the act. But how costly it is! The White House is appalled by the expense to the taxpayer: one two-hundredth of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles per year. This is intolerable. "Freedom of information is not cost-free," says an Assistant Attorney General in charge of abridging our freedom of information. It interferes with "efficient government," which requires unfreedom of information and much else besides. Accordingly, in late April and early May, William French Smith, an old crony of Reagan's and now Attorney General, issues new guidelines designed to weaken the act and strengthen bureaucracy's power of concealment. The candidate who promised to "get government off the people's back" is determined, as President, to get the American people off their government's back.

... the White House is quietly negotiating with the House and the Senate Intelligence Committee over a proposed executive order authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency; for the first time in its history; to spy on the American people-an abuse of presidential power uncovered in the democratic awakening and now to be disabused by making it legal, or, more accurately, by squaring it with the party oligarchs in Congress. "The opening of a Pandora's box with respect to the enhanced opportunities of the intelligence community to intrude into the private lives of American citizens," warns Admiral Stansfield Turner, Carter's Central Intelligence director, and so, in due course, it turns out.

In the midst of these private, undebated negotiations-for what is debated these days?-and casting an ominous light upon them, the President who wants to "get government off the people's back" pardons two high FBI officials convicted last year of violating the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," having ordered warrantless break-ins of war protesters' homes. The two criminal officials "acted on high principles to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation," the White House proclaims on April 15. But is the Fourth Amendment not a high principle, a principle of liberty among the highest? So the ACLU asks the White House, which duly supplies an answer published this May 15 in the Post. It is a stern reminder to Meese's "criminals' lobby" of the President's "sworn duty to preserve and protect the national security of the United States." Behold! The American Republic has a new presidential oath of office, an oath rewritten for the careless, truthless man in the White House, who not four months ago stood before the grand sweep of the Mall and took his oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" and nothing more "basic" than the Constitution, nor "higher" than the Constitution, but it and it alone. The White House has rewritten the oath to make it a shambles, for the difference between the Framers' oath and the Reaganite oath is precisely this: that the former subjects the President to the laws-was this not the "lesson" of Watergate?-and the latter, Watergate-amended, subjects the law to the President. The entire Reagan era of lawlessness and tyranny lies prefigured in that oath so contemptuously redacted. And in Reagan's request that Congress abolish the office of special prosecutor and so put the new criminal regime out of reach of the law.

... the pressing I question of the hour is: How can the President's tax plan be saved? The Speaker, guileful Tip, walkabout Tip, master of his craft, has provided the answer: We Democrats must "win" a "face-saving tax victory." Let us not talk of deficits; let us match the President dollar for dollar in pursuit of a legislative "victory." "We have the votes. Can [Reagan] take them away from us?" says Speaker Tip, "listless" no longer, breathing defiance. Let us not talk of injustice, unfairness, of coarse, brutal "class warfare," of gross privilege dispensed to the privileged. Let us in pursuit of "victory" offer even greater tax favors for corporations, more brazen tax favors for the rich-estate-tax reductions, gift-tax reductions, retirement accounts for the affluent, tax exemptions for oil operators, tax breaks for truckers, scores of tax concessions to scores of narrow special interests", a battle of the tax cut," Congressional Quarterly calls it, a rivalry between White House and Ways and Means Democrats to see who can gut the fisc more deeply, who can offer more favors to the favored. "An amazing spectacle," Congressional Quarterly reports on June 27, "Democrats trying to outbid Republicans for the affections of the business community"-a bidding war, so-called, led by Rostenkowski, determined to "win" whatever the price, such is his "training," who "did it with the assent of the entire leadership. I think it's one of the most insidious moves I've seen." So a liberal New York Democrat named Richard Ottinger tells a New York Times reporter in January 1984, on the eve of abandoning politics, out of disgust with his party's three-year collusion with Reagan.

Yet strange to relate of this furious fight to win: The Democrats have not the slightest desire actually to win. Why, after all, should they take the blame for the great fisc-devouring deficits to come? So, in the midst of this titanic "bidding war" to gain the votes, ostensibly, of straying southern Democrats, "top Democratic leaders," reports Congressional Quarterly, "continue to strongly oppose disciplining party members who might stray from the fold." Is this not an odd way to pursue a face-saving victory? Majority Leader Wright attends a "closed-door forum meeting" of conservative southern Democrats "to tell its members he will protect their right to vote as they choose." Odder yet! Party discipline, says a leadership aide, "is not being applied nor is there even talk of it being applied." In a word, the great "face-saving tax victory" struggle is a complete and utter sham, a sham so gross House leaders feel compelled to supply an alternative explanation to satisfy the more cynical. We are trying to "broaden our financial base," say leadership spokesmen to sundry pundits, party operators and Capitol Hill onlookers. We are "tailoring" our "legislative strategy to woo corporate donors," says a Democratic Party official. House leaders "felt they had to bid for corporate money," a Democratic fugleman later explains. Yet strange to relate, this furious truckling to "corporate donors," this proffering of tens of billions in tax-break bribes brings next to nothing to the party coffers. For even the sordid commercial excuse for the "bidding war" is just another party lie, as false as the "face-saving tax victory. Two layers of lies, a palimpsest, to obscure the appalling truth. The House Democrats have launched the "bidding war" with Reagan in order to save Reagan's tax bill at the moment of crisis, to save the devouring of the fisc, the shrinking of the public realm, the crime of '81 and the shyster tyranny behind it. This is a motive so base that selling legislative favors at auction sounds innocent beside it, for commercial republics, alas, accept commercial excuses, and economics often becomes, for that reason, the first refuge of scoundrels in America.

On July 29, Reagan's tax reduction plan, now larger and unfairer than it was before, carries the House by a vote of 238 to 196. The New York Times editorial this morning speaks the mournful truth:

The Democrats had their chance for glory by exposing the economic fallacies and risks in the President's plan. Instead they pursued him over the same cliff... They spent wildly to pass their bill rather than his. For every tax break the White House offered the rich and powerful, the Democrats offered one of their own, sometimes two .... The Great Tax Cut of 1981 assures a yawning federal deficit and another rampage through federal programs to try to offset it." But the price of "glory" would have been steep: the end of the Reaction, quite likely. The prospective profits of baseness seem great: party power fortified and restored under the forthcoming reign of false frugality, political paralysis and popular government relentlessly besieged. Truly, the ambitions of oligarchies are as pitiless as the passions of princes.

Liberty Under Siege

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