Is this a new, New Deal? — with David Gergen and Walter Berns (1995) | THINK TANK

Is this a new, New Deal? — with David Gergen and Walter Berns (1995) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. More than six decades ago, President Franklin
Roosevelt offered Americans a New Deal, ushering in a political era which changed America in
fundamental ways. Some say the New Deal didn’t end until January
4, 1995, when the Republicans finally took over Congress. Does that really signal another political
earthquake? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are David Gergen, former special adviser to President Clinton and soon-to-be
visiting professor at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University; Catherine
Rudder, executive director of the American Political Science Association; Walter Berns,
resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and professor emeritus at Georgetown
University, author of “After the People Vote”; and former Republican Congressman
Vin Weber, vice chair of Empower America and senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute at
the University of Minnesota. The topic before this house: The Republican
Congress, is it a new New Deal? Certain elections mark new political eras:
the one of 1800, 1860, 1896, and, of course, Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide victory in
1932. Franklin Roosevelt (from videotape): When
there is no vision, the people perish. Ben Wattenberg: Many historians say Roosevelt’s
New Deal was the greatest political shift in America during this century. Devastated by the Depression, the American
people let the federal government assume vast new powers. Roosevelt instituted Social Security, the
regulation of financial markets, unemployment insurance, and an array of jobs programs — like
it or not, more government. In 1952, some Republicans hoped President
Dwight Eisenhower would roll back the New Deal. Instead, he made it bipartisan. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced
his Great Society. Building on the New Deal, he expanded the
federal writ, including a War on Poverty, Medicare, civil rights, job training, and
new environmental and education programs — like it or not, yet another big role for government. But by 1980, many Americans thought that Great
Society programs were creating more problems than they were solving. Ronald Reagan promised to get the government
off our backs, but he was often stymied by Democratic opposition in Congress. Then, on November 8, 1994, Republicans swept
into power, capturing a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House,
has promised to complete the Reagan revolution by dramatically cutting the size and scope
of the federal government. Within the first hundred days, according to
the Contract with America, Republicans plan to vote on welfare reform, a tougher crime
bill, and a balanced budget amendment, with lots more to come after the contract is dealt
with. Let’s go around the horn once quickly. Vin Weber, is this really a new New Deal? Is it of that magnitude? Vin Weber: I think that the New Deal was rejected
in this election, and probably the best way to see that is not just through the election
results, but by looking, in my view, at the health care debate, how the American public
reacted to the Clinton health care proposal, and then what happened in the fall elections. What you saw was really a rejection, in my
view, of the New Deal approach to problem solving, a rejection of centralization of
authority, a rejection of bureaucracy. That seems to me to be an enduring characteristic
of our politics today. Whether or not it means a realignment in a
partisan sense, I think, is an open question yet. And I do think you have to go back and look
at the 1992 election, only two years ago, actually, and remember that at that time the
voters rejected the Republicans because they didn’t think they were activist enough in
solving problems. So the American people are saying, “We don’t
like traditional New Deal, big government problem-solving.” They’re not saying, “We want a passive
government that lets problems simply fester.” Ben Wattenberg: Walter Berns. Walter Berns: What is different, I think,
this time than in the past is the fact that parties don’t occupy the same importance
as in the past. And one doesn’t know exactly what’s going
to happen. Is the Republican Party the Republican Party
it was in the past, the Democrat Party it once was? And are the people loyal to parties, as they
were in the past? That’s a question. And essentially what your question is is whether
this election is similar to the elections of 1800, 1860, and essentially 1936 — that
was the really decisive Roosevelt election. And it may well be. It may well be. We’ll see. Ben Wattenberg: David Gergen. David Gergen: Well, it’s certainly a new
day. And I think it’s the brightest day for Republicans,
and for conservatives especially, since Ronald Reagan was elected. This is really a second wave of Reaganism,
I think, that’s sweeping our politics. And I must say, the Republicans ran a very
brilliant campaign and are off to a very fast start, so they may fulfill the promise of
this new era. But whether it’s a serious turn in our politics,
whether it represents a new era, I think I would agree with Vin and with Walter that
I don’t think we know the answer to that. I think the Republicans have the opportunity
to make it that, but a couple of things. One is there is enormous volatility in our
politics right now, just as there is in almost every industrialized nation. The conservatives need to remember, after
all, in Canada that the Conservative Party went from 151 seats to two seats like that,
in one election. And our politics are whipping around right
now. And in part, our politics are whipping around
because we have these very deep-seated problems that are driven in part by the new economy,
where the majority of our workers now find themselves. And to go to Vin’s point, if Republicans
can address those issues, I think they have the chance, just as the Democrats still do,
to become a long-term majority party. But if they are unable to address those issues
successfully, I think our politics will remain volatile. Ben Wattenberg: Catherine Rudder. Catherine Rudder: Well, I agree with the whole
panel. [Laughter.] Ben Wattenberg: We can all go home now. Catherine Rudder: No — well, not quite. This is an opportunity for the Republicans. And if we’re looking for stability over
time, I think it will be very hard for the Democrats to recapture Congress for some time
to come, and that is some stability and some major change. Whether there has been a realignment in the
American electorate — not yet. There might be. I think I would ask Dave whether he thinks
the Contract for America possibly does address the question you raised — that is, the fundamental
economic questions. And I wonder if it does. David Gergen: I think it addresses a preliminary
question, and that is that many Americans want government to be more efficient. And they want it to be — they want to be
able to trust government more than they do now. Trust in the government is at extraordinarily
low levels. And until that happens, I think Republicans
can restore that trust by doing the kinds of things they started doing on the first
day, and that is to clean up Congress, to make Congress smaller. I think the Democrats missed that opportunity. You know, one of the turning points now, looking
back over the last two years, was the day that Tom Foley and Dick Gephardt and George
Mitchell went to Little Rock during the transition and talked President Clinton out of the promise
to reduce the size of Congress by 25 percent and talked him out of essentially pursuing
campaign finance reform as a major, major initiative. Had the Democrats done that, I think they
could have maintained some of their momentum. But I think Republicans now have that opportunity. But those kinds of reforms do not address
the underlying economic issues. Catherine Rudder: Right. David Gergen: And that is — I’m not sure
yet how the Republicans are going to get at that. I don’t think the contract fully addresses
that. Ben Wattenberg: What do the Republicans have
to do to make the case that they are doing something? Vin Weber: Ben, if I can build a little bit
on David’s answer to Cathy’s question — and I agree with that. I think the contract is basically just the
very first step. The Republicans are demonstrating through
the contract that they are not what the American people rejected. The American people have become, as we all
know, in the last several years, very cynical about both parties, about all institutions
of government. And the contract was sort of an extraordinary
means of saying that we’re not all the same; you know, it’s not going to be business
as usual. But it really doesn’t say anything, at least
to me, about a governing philosophy of Republicanism that addresses the kind of problems that Dave
Gergen talks about. However, I think, as a Republican — if you
want to look optimistically, I’d look at Gingrich’s speech in accepting the speakership. He said a very important thing, really an
historic thing, saying, after we do the contract, he has two goals. We’re going to pursue a balanced budget,
and we’re going to reform the liberal welfare state and replace it with something else,
which he refers to as an “opportunity society.” And then, remarkably, said — Ben Wattenberg: You are one of the original
formers and members of the Conservative Opportunity Society, with Gingrich and — Vin Weber: We formed it in 1983. It would sort of lead to this day, we hoped. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Vin Weber: But the remarkable thing that he
said is that the second of those goals was more important to him than the first, meaning
replacing the welfare state with an opportunity society was more important even than balancing
the budget. That’s unusual for a Republican. And to accomplish that, he is going to have
to come up with — and they are going to have to come up with a philosophy of problem-solving
that involves government at some level and involves leveraging resources at some level
and sort of rejects an old-line Republican view that this simply is not the province
of the public sector. Walter Berns: Let me add something to this. One of the signs that may be visible in the
future that this is indeed the kind of realignment election, that we have a new New Deal here,
is the fact that what is being discussed in politics is no longer what was being discussed
before. It’s now going to be something else, and
that’s what we’ll have to see here. Have I made that point clear? I mean, take the election of 1860. From that time on, we were no longer arguing
about the extension of slavery. That issue was settled, and the Civil War
settled it. And the party competition from that time on
was no longer what it was. And the same sort of thing can be said after
1930, ’32, ’36. Incidentally, one point I ought to have made
at the outset was, if this is a realignment election, it’s the first realignment election
that didn’t occur in a presidential year. And we’ll see about that. Ben Wattenberg: Catherine, you’re a student
of the Congress. Is that right? Is this a congressional government we’re
getting into now? Is Bill Clinton becoming irrelevant to the
process? Catherine Rudder: The president is never irrelevant. And it’s very difficult, as I’m sure Vin
will remind us all, for Congress to lead as an institution. We’re really talking about 435 — in the
case of the House — individual members. And one of the reasons I think Newt Gingrich
has been so brilliant in his leadership is he’s given a sense of coherence to his side. And for a while, he will be able to benefit
from that. But over the long haul, I think we can see
some splintering that inevitably has to go on, because members have to respond to their
own constituencies and not just the leadership of the party. Ben Wattenberg: Well, let me ask you a question,
because you and I over this last weekend were having some discussions about this, which
I wrote about. The idea that Gingrich and company, the Republicans,
can have some unilateral control without Bill Clinton is very complicated, but very potent. I wonder if you as a former congressman and
a student of Congress could describe what we’re talking about, because it seems to
me that gives one man or a small part of one party enormous leverage. Vin Weber: As long as the agenda is reducing
the size and scope of government — and we’ve just talked about the fact that that isn’t
the totality of the agenda, but for now that’s the agenda — yeah, the House Republicans,
if they act, as I put it to you, Ben, with nerve and discipline, can really accomplish
a great deal of their agenda through the appropriations process. At the end of the day, the government cannot
spend money unless the House of Representatives votes to spend it. And as long as they’re willing to use the
appropriations process to zero out agencies that they want to eliminate and simply hold
firm, at the end of the day, the president and the Senate really are going to have to
go along, because the alternative is simply fundamentally to shut down the entire government. Ben Wattenberg: If they decide to defund the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds the public broadcasting system and other
public broadcasters, if they dig in their heels and do it, there is nobody that can
undo it. Vin Weber: That’s exactly right. And understand what will happen. The president will be sent a bill that includes
funding not just for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but I believe that that appropriation
is part of the HUD Independent Agencies bill. So you’ll have all the funding for the programs
of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And you’ll have NASA, and you’ll have
all these other things. And then where is the line for the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, it will simply say zero. The president, if he doesn’t like that,
has the alternative of vetoing the whole bill, in which case there is no funding for anything
in the bill. And Republican presidents found the opposite
side of this coin when the Democrats controlled the Congress. The Democrats would send them bills that spent
too much money or reflected different priorities than the president. Us young, inexperienced members of Congress
said, “Veto it, shut the government down.” Of course, at the end of the day, they couldn’t
do that. Ben Wattenberg: Dave, does this process and
what we’re seeing now make President Clinton irrelevant or somewhat irrelevant to the process? I mean, if they have unilateral control to
cut out programs, never get to the president’s desk, does he become sort of a, you know,
maybe a syndicated columnist or something and comment on it? [Laughter] David Gergen: Absolutely not. Beyond the powers that he retains in the foreign
affairs area, Ben, he can rally the country on some of these issues that haven’t yet
been squarely faced. Just on the issues that don’t spend a lot
of money, whether it be public broadcasting or the arts, you know, there’s going to
be a hornet’s nest of opposition to that. There are going to be a lot of folks in this
country who are going to oppose that. And I don’t think we have yet faced up to
the — Ben Wattenberg: Including a lot of — David Gergen: Moderate Republicans. And indeed, some conservative Republicans. Ben Wattenberg: And conservative Republicans. David Gergen: I think that’s right. Ben Wattenberg: I mean, you go out on the
speaking circuit and — Walter Berns: I have my doubts about that. David Gergen: Well, we’ll see. Catherine Rudder: We’re talking in the larger
picture, though. It strikes me that you have to keep in mind
that there’s the Senate, which will surely be a cooling mechanism to the House, and will
put back in funding, maybe — perhaps not in an individual case, but in many cases,
they will. And there will be negotiations between the
Senate and the House. And in addition, there are many members of
the House, Republican members of the House, who simply won’t be able to tolerate some
of the spending cuts being proposed. David Gergen: Let me come back to the more
fundamental point, Ben, because we’re going to have some preliminary arguments now over
discretionary programs. But once the Republicans pass, if they do,
the balanced budget amendment — and the president indicated apparently that he would
not fight that — we’re going to have some much, much larger questions in this country
about whether the country is prepared to take the kind of cuts in the entitlement programs
that are going to be necessitated by a balanced budget amendment. And whether the country is willing to roll
back these programs or knock the props out of programs such as Medicare, or indeed Social
Security down the road, I’m not at all clear that our politics have yet reached the point
where people are willing to do what it takes. Vin Weber: I just recently heard Leon Panetta
reacting to the balanced budget amendment, saying that we should have a plan to balance
the budget in five years. I was on the Budget Committee for a while,
and I retain some familiarity with that. The decisions that we as a society will have
to make to balance the budget in five years absolutely will require a radical transformation
of the way government does business. And it’s not possible in my view, Dave — and
I’d be interested in knowing if you agree with this — not possible to do it without
touching Social Security and Medicare in a very substantial way. David Gergen: I don’t think you can do it. And I think that Senator Pete Domenici has
made it clear that the programs that the Republicans are now contemplating, as serious and significant
as they are in changing our politics, go only about 40 percent of the way towards solving
the problem if you really want to balance the budget. I think we should balance the budget. I think we should be moving in that direction,
but I don’t think we ought to kid ourselves about how radical the changes and how you
have to go after Social Security and Medicare. Ben Wattenberg: But the cuts that would be
necessary in those programs to lead you that way are far less than draconian. I mean, you can just reduce the cost of living
adjustment by, what, 1 percent, and you get enormous billions of dollars from it. Vin Weber: I agree with that, Ben. I think that making cuts in Social Security
— this is one of the ironic things about this whole argument — this third rail of
American politics, as they call the Social Security that we can’t touch really can
be reduced at a far less disruptive impact on people’s lives than some of the other
programs that we’re going to eliminate — cutting welfare, stuff like that. Because, you know, when you send out 40 million
checks every single month, very small adjustments in those checks add up to billions and billions
of dollars in savings. But up to now, any approach to Social Security
at all has been so politicized that people can’t cut one penny out of one check. Catherine Rudder: But I would add to your
point about the difficulty of reducing the deficit. We have to add now another 200 or so billion
dollars for tax cuts. I mean, we are — even if one can make some
of the decisions you’re talking about, Ben, it seems to me this is just an enormous task
for Congress. Ben Wattenberg: Walter, what is the history
of this thought that Congress can govern? Didn’t we have an era in American life when
Congress was in fact more important than a president? Walter Berns: Well, yeah, sure, and that led
to Woodrow Wilson’s campaign to revise the Constitution and increase the power of the
presidency. And to some extent, of course, he did. The presidency is no longer what it once was. But that period where Congress was really
so important was a period without the kind of political problems, I think, that we face
— Ben Wattenberg: What was that time frame,
and who were the people? Walter Berns: Well, the latter part of the
19th century, extending into a few years in the 20th, I suppose. Catherine Rudder: That’s correct. Walter Berns: And you had very powerful Speakers
of the House at that time. And this is the sort of thing that disturbed
someone like Woodrow Wilson, who wanted a kind of parliamentary system, led by — Ben Wattenberg: And these were the speakers
that ended up with their names on those congressional office buildings. Walter Berns: Yeah, sure. Ben Wattenberg: I mean, like Cannon and Longworth. Vin Weber: What a — to step back for a second
— what a remarkable turn of events that the man who has probably been the most confrontational,
harsh, bomb-throwing critic of the Congress in our lifetimes, Newt Gingrich, is now maybe
in the process of restoring the Congress to a position that it had prior to the turn of
the century. I don’t know if that’s going to happen
or not. I’ll tell you one thing that he’s already
done, and this is purely political. It’s not policy-wise. But he has transformed the Republican Party,
which has been a presidentially focused party all of my life, into a congressionally focused
party. Republicans around the country are far more
interested in what’s happening in the Congress today than they are in who’s going to be
nominated for president. And that’s brand new in the Republican Party. Walter Berns: Yeah, but supposing we get a
Republican president in ’96, or as a result of the ’96 election. What effect will that have on Newt Gingrich’s
— Vin Weber: Well, it depends on who it is. Ben Wattenberg: It might be Newt Gingrich. Walter Berns: That’s possible, but not likely. I do think, if there is a Republican president,
whoever he is, it’s going to have the effect of refocusing our attention on the White House. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask this. You know, when the New Deal came along, it
really changed life for everyday Americans. They had suddenly pensions; they had unemployment
insurance. I mean, there were big changes. Let’s say this Gingrich-led Republican revolution
actually happens. How will Mr. and Mrs. America, Joe and Jill
Six-Pack, how will their life be changed in everyday terms? Because that’s what a political revolution
should do. Vin Weber: I think that the answer to that
question is, despite the $200 billion problem you talked about, the Republicans cannot decide
that they’re not going to cut taxes, at least somewhere. I don’t know if they have to do everything
they promised in the contract. But I guess I’m old-fashioned politically. I don’t think you can only deal out pain
and sacrifice to people. And the only way the Republicans in this revolution
can really make large numbers of Americans feel right now that they are benefiting from
it is through the tax system, whether it’s the child tax credit that they’ve talked
about or the president’s idea of deducting college tuition, which Speaker Gingrich has
said they ought to look favorably on or at least give a hearing to. They have to do some of those things, it seems
to me. Ben Wattenberg: Cathy, is that of a magnitude
of Social Security and unemployment insurance and those kind of things? Catherine Rudder: No, it’s not, but it’s
important. And I would say, notice the tax cut he mentioned. He didn’t mention capital gains tax cut
or depreciation for business investment tax cut. Ben Wattenberg: Shame on you. Vin Weber: I’m for it, though. Catherine Rudder: I’m sure you are. Ben Wattenberg: Money for the rich, right. Catherine Rudder: But instead, he mentioned
the child tax credit, and I think a child tax credit would go a way toward helping average
Americans think that the Republican Party is doing something for them, even though that
may be relatively small. It’s family oriented. It’s a credit, so it’s fairer. It’s across the board; everybody gets the
same amount, which is a really smart move on the part, I think, of the Republican leadership,
to propose such a thing. And so I think that can have an impact on
the average person, even if it’s relatively small. I think it really does say, “We care about
your family. We know it’s tough; it’s tough to raise
children. And we’re going to — and it’s not just
for rich people.” Ben Wattenberg: Walter, how about this? Let’s hear your view. How does everyday life change in America? Walter Berns: Let me answer your question
by suggesting that’s a good way of posing the original question. It’s a lot harder to identify now than it
was, say, in 1936 what is going to come out of this alleged revolution. It was easy in 1936 to identify what people
expected if Roosevelt were to succeed. Now it’s not so easy, is it? I also have the feeling that there is a great
deal of unfocused discontent in the country that really has not been involved — except
with the crime issue — involved in Washington politics. People have the sense that there is something
seriously wrong with this country, and — Ben Wattenberg: Might it be that the change
this engenders, if it’s successful, is really more psychological than political? I mean, it says to people, you know, government
isn’t big daddy. It’s still there. It’s still the safety net. But you’ve got to figure out how to do it
yourself. And that would be a change away from what
people — some people claim has been ailing us. Walter Berns: Well, one way of stating that
is people would like to get control again of the education that takes place in their
local schools. Is that a political issue now? There is a great deal of discontent about
education in this country, a great deal of discontent about the conditions of life in
this country, a great deal of discontent about these social things, the condition of the
family. You know, when — well, I won’t go through
the statistics here, but they are alarming. Are these things going to be touched by this
— Vin Weber: I think that’s the right question. I think what you’re talking about is — if
I can give an advertisement for the Humphrey Institute — the issue that we’re looking
at there is the dissolution of community, which seems to me to be what Walter is referring
to. And I think that there are certain governmental
impacts on that, but in many ways, that’s not an issue that can be reached totally by
government action. But I think that’s what people have to look
at. Yeah, there is a movement in the country,
the citizenship movement, that’s gaining considerable force. It has people on the left, people on the right,
the communitarian movement, talking about, in a nongovernmental way, how do we rebuild
community close to where people live and where people actually relate to the society around
them? I think that that is an important part of
our future, and it’s a nongovernmental approach to problem-solving. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Catherine Rudder, David Gergen,
Vin Weber, and Walter Berns. And thank you. Please send your questions and comments to
New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Suite Washington, DC 20036. Or we can be reached via email at [email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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