The Debate We Need ...

THE DEBATE WE NEED ABOUT GOVERNMENT ISN'T happening, and the fault lies largely with Bob Dole. President Clinton is running a campaign of insults and not ideas (ugly commercials mixed with self-congratulation), but who can blame him? He's got the lead. Only Dole could inject intellectual vigor into the campaign, and he hasn't. Everything he says seems stale and disconnected. Last week he bemoaned the economy's sorry state in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club--and two days later the Census Bureau reported that household incomes jumped 2.7 percent in 1995.

Clinton didn't cause the gain (it's mostly the luck of the business cycle), but Dole's campaign theme is clearly removed from reality. He keeps plugging his 15 percent income-tax cut to invigorate an economy that seems sickly only to his diehard supporters. The pity is that his flabby economic message has superseded a debate on the role of government. It is not that anyone--Dole or Clinton--can end ""big government.'' Its programs (from Social Security to national parks) are too popular. The real issue concerns government's direction. Will it grow bigger and more activist? Or will it be more restrained and disciplined?

And here genuine party differences exist, as Dole argues. Democrats, he says, have a ""vision that places government at the center of our lives.'' That's true of Clinton, who seeks a federal response to almost any social complaint. Are schools in need of repair? Clinton proposes a program to spend $5 billion over four years. Do middle-class parents feel burdened by college tuition? Clinton urges tuition tax breaks. Do workers feel torn between jobs and children? Clinton wants more mandated ""family leave.''

By contrast, Republicans ""believe in trusting the people to make more of their own decisions,'' Dole contends. History (not Dole's rhetoric) confirms that Republicans tend to hold down taxes. Every postwar Republican president has left federal taxes lower than his Democratic successors. In 1961, Eisenhower left taxes at 17.8 percent of gross domestic product; by 1969, Lyndon Johnson had raised them to 19.7 percent of GDP. In 1977, Gerald Ford left them at 18 percent of GDP. By 1981, Jimmy Carter's taxes were 19.7 percent of GDP. George Bush left in 1993 with taxes at 17.8 percent of GDP; in 1996, they'll exceed 19 percent of GDP. (Each point of GDP equals about $75 billion.)

What Dole terms ""trust,'' of course, the Democrats call indifference. And that's the crux of the matter: where to draw the line between undesirable indifference and desirable independence? Some of Clinton's plans can be dismissed as being more sound bites than social policy. His school-repair proposal, for instance, wouldn't provide much extra money and would impose more bureaucracy on state and local governments. School capital spending on construction and repair now exceeds $25 billion annually; Clinton would add a bit more than $1 billion.

Tuition tax breaks are ""bad tax policy and worse education policy,'' write Lawrence Gladieux, director of policy analysis for the College Board, and Robert Reischauer, former head of the Congressional Budget Office. The tax breaks are complex. For two years of college, taxpayers could choose either a $1,500 credit or a $10,000 deduction; after that, only the deduction would apply, and it phases out at higher income levels. Also, students couldn't qualify for a second year of the credit unless they had a B average. Got it? Reischauer and Gladieux think the tax breaks would inspire grade inflation and (yes) higher tuition.

But Dole has discredited himself as a critic of Clinton's schemes by proposing a tax plan with comparable defects. He's said what he'd give away (tax cuts) and not what he'd take away (spending cuts). Put differently, he hasn't defined desirable government. What's to be chopped? The Weather Service? Food stamps? Health research? If Dole trusts people so much, why not trust them with a candid plan--one with believable spending cuts and one that concedes the need for a long-term overhaul of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare? The conventional wisdom: that'd be political suicide.

Well, Dole bought the conventional wisdom and seems headed for . . . political suicide. The reason is that he sacrificed one clear advantage over Clinton: a reputation for honesty. Only about 25 percent of Americans believe that he can do both his taax cut and balance the budget, reports the ABC/Washington Post survey. Dole crippled his ability to speak to critical swing voters, who want government to be both restrained and responsible.

Still, it's fair to surmise that Dole would govern more restrictively than Clinton in at least three ways:

1. Taxes would be lower--though not as low as Dole pledges.

2. The tax system would be somewhat simpler (with lower rates and fewer deductions and credits)--though not simple enough to ""end the IRS as we know it.''

3. There would be less ""off budget'' spending via regulations and mandates--though no wholesale dismantling of regulation.

This sort of government wouldn't differ radically from today's, but its tone and direction would contrast with Clinton's government, which would be on the prowl for new social problems to solve. We ought to be debating which vision we prefer. Instead, we've got two candidates who, in their symbolic speeches, have staked out equally unrealistic positions. One implies that government's good for almost everything. The other indicates that it's good for almost nothing. Neither stereotype describes the dilemma of most Americans: they can't live with big government-- or without it.

Government cannot continuously expand without harming the economy and exceeding popular tolerance for taxes and rules. But government is also a permanent part of the social fabric. Americans need to accept their dependence without letting it become ddebilitating. Healthy debate won't settle all issues but can create a climate of opinion better attuned to what's practical. Once it seemed that this election might provide such a debate. Perhaps that hope was naive. It certainly hasn't come to pass.