The Great Potomac Earthquake: America's New Bargain with Washington

By Pines, Burton Yale | Policy Review, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

The Great Potomac Earthquake: America's New Bargain with Washington


Pines, Burton Yale, Policy Review


The 1992 presidential race was supposed to be a yawn. George Bush, loftily hovering above 80-percent popularity last year, was supposed to have reelection sewn up. The real action, pundits told us, must wait for 1996's free-for-all.

This isn't, obviously, how it's working out. To its surprise, America finds itself in the swirl of the most exciting, least predictable presidential horse race since the photo finishes of 1960, 1968, and 1976.

The excitement comes from the twin tremors rattling political seismographs: 1) the spontaneous mobilization of H. Ross Perot's legions, dissatisfied with Republicans and Democrats alike, and still clamoring for change after their hero's abrupt departure from the race; and 2) a public furor at Congress, which has prompted 80-plus incumbents to throw in the towel and not seek reelection to their House seats, while nearly a score of states have put term-limitation measures on November's ballot. In political terms, this is the start of an earthquake--in part, the result of the most painful economic downturn since World War II. In part, too, it's the result of the angry disillusion provoked by Bush's cavalier abandonment of his no-new-taxes pledge and by the White House's persistent failure of leadership on any issue. And, in part, it's the result of the offensive behavior of congressmen kiting checks, fiddling with their post office funds, and generally abusing privileges.

But these factors alone can't account for a public reaction registering in the high reaches of the political Richter scale. As with all major earthquakes, this one is caused by a shift of subterranean geological plates. What is sliding away is the Cold War bedrock upon which much of U.S. post-World War II politics apparently has rested.

Washington at War

It was widely expected that the geopolitical collapse, surrender, and dissolution of the Soviet Union would reshuffle the foreign policy deck. What was not predicted was how much the end of the Cold War would rewrite the rules of domestic politics. Yet this is what is happening. The sudden clamor for change in domestic policy coincides with the sharp reduction of danger abroad, as Americans are demanding to renegotiate the bargain the nation made with Washington a half-century ago.

It was the Cold War, more than the New Deal or Great Society, that allowed Washington to become the dominant political force in American life. There were two reasons for this. The first was the massive power Washington acquired to assemble and run the military-industrial establishment. The second was the enormous legitimacy this gave Washington in non-defense areas.

A Washington competent to defend America was accepted as a Washington competent to attack social and economic ills. The "systems analysis" approach that ostensibly worked in choosing the strategies and weapons to protect America from dangers abroad surely would work to defeat problems at home.

Revealing is the very terminology invoked: Washington launched "wars" on poverty, on drugs, on cancer, and AIDS; Washington sought a Manhattan Project for public housing; Washington was asked for Marshall Plans for urban renewal and for infrastructure. The image of Washington as a masterful General Staff capable of the most extraordinary feats burrowed itself so deeply into the American mind that it spawned one of our most reflexively invoked cliches: "If America can put a man on the moon, it can...."

Thus in the '60s and '70s, when questions arose about protecting the environment, ensuring health care for the elderly and financial support for welfare mothers, giving poor children a "Head Start" on education, and other matters traditionally addressed by local communities, Americans increasingly looked to Washington for answers. And Washington, following central government's natural instinct to aggrandize itself, happily responded by coming up with programs. …

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