EXCUSE ME AND pardon me, but I have something to ask you. Did you vote for this?
Did you vote to reduce food stamps, make it rougher on poor people and even get rid of the 108-year-old National Aquarium?
Did you, when you voted for Ronald Reagan, have in mind making a big to-do about El Salvador, and did you think that we had to dump a whole ton on money into the Defense Department so that we will spend $55 million on military bands but nothing for legal services for the poor?
Did you vote for block grants to the states so that they could do with federal money (not state money) pretty much what they want? Was it your intention when you went into the voting booth to eliminate the tiny national water project that costs $1.5 million a year, which helps local governments with their water and sewer problems? How about National Public Radio? Did you think you were voting on it?
I don't think most people voted for this. They sure didn't vote for Jimmy Carter, either, but what they voted for was a change -- not a revolution. They voted for a bit more backbone in our foreign policy and maybe a little toughness in the budgeting precess. They wanted someone to get hold of the economy and do something about inflation, and if that meant making some hard decisions, that was fine with them. But they did not vote against poor people and they did not vote to repeal the lessons we learned in blood in Vietnam.
After all, for all the talk about a Reagan landslide, he won with only 51.6 percent of vote -- hardly the groundswell it is now made out to have been. It there was a statement in those results it was that Carter lost, not that Reagan won -- certainly not that he won big and certainly not that he won with a mandate to fundamentally change the relationship of the government to the people. What was expected was some minor changes, some tinkering, less liberalism, maybe but not a crash course in conservatism. You knew with Reagan that there would be less government, but not, I think, less heart.
But the decision to end federal funding of legal services for the poor is not a budget decision. It is a policy decision. Sure, legal survices cost money. (So does trial by jury.) It cost, in fact, $300 million a year, and while that's not peanuts, it is not what is known in Washington as Big Bucks. Money, though, is not the issue. You don't scrimp on basic rights. You don't tell one segment of society that the government cannot afford to protect its rights. You don't tell poor people that, because of poverty, they have less rights than other citizens, that somehow they are less of a citizen and less of a person.
That's not economics. That's not budgetary. It has nothing to do with monetarism or supply-side theory or even this compulsive need to balance the budget. Eliminating legal services, insisting on work for welfare and cutting welfare itself is neither new nor rooted in economics. It is as old as holding the poor, all the poor, accountable for their own poverty, for seeing them as somehow having chosen to be poor, to live off the government, to bum, to be parasites. It is a demon theory of the poor -- evil that must be punished. It seems that being poor is never punishment enough.
These were not the sorts of issues that were before us in the election. For that, the press must take some blame. In two highly touted debates, one with John Anderson, the other with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan was not asked a single question about either legal services or food stamps or, in specifics, how he was going to reduce the welfare burden. Always, the assumption seemed to be that Reagan accepted the premise of the New Deal and the era of social legislation that followed, and that his differneces with Carter were only of shading, emphasis -- a dollar here, a dollar there. Even when the press got specific, Reagan responded with bromides and anecdotes.
If you are one of the people who saw through that, who knew all along what Ronald Reagan inteneded, then the morning papers must bring good news indeed. But for a whole lot of us, we pick it up, scan the headlines, scratch our heads and ask, "Did we vote for this?" The answer is no. But the question no longer matters.