The Axis is coming! The Axis is coming!
No, silly goose, not the Rome-Berlin Axis. The Second World War settled its hash. Today's menace, according to The Wall Street Journal, is "The Will-Dole axis." A Journal editorial says:
"Sen. Bob Dole's appearance on ABC's 'This Week With David Brinkley' recently was the Revenue Enhancer's fourth on the program in the past year. Yet despite the show's proclivity for tax talk, Rep. Jack Kemp hasn't been on since July 1982, and Rep. Newt Gingrich, whose name came up almost as many times as the president's, has never been a guest. George Will is the show's resident conservative, but the Will- Dole axis is hardly representative of supply-side conservatism."
The editorial erred. Kemp and Gingrich had declined invitations (although Kempwas on the show Nov. 25 after the Journal's editorial appeared). And Dole has been on the show three times in the past 12 months, only once when the subject was taxes. But, then, the Journal is a supply-side paper, and numbers are not the supply-siders' strength.
But back to the subject of the Axis, those muttonheaded people (e.g., Dole, Will) who persist in saying that the deficit cannot be sufficiently shrunk by spending cuts alone. The Axis says that new revenues will be needed, revenues in excess of any that economic growth will generate under today's tax code.
Fire-eating "conservatives" who differ with Dole call him, and those who think like him, "traditional" Republicans. Times are truly out of joint when the adjective "traditional" becomes, in the name of conservatism, an epithet.
Traditional Republicans believe that the public must pay in taxes for the public-services component of its standard of living. Critics of "traditional" Republicans call themselves "real" Republicans. They say the Republican Party has misled the country for years by stressing the dangers of deficits.
The supply-siders' argument is, at a certain level of generality, indisputable, even jejune. It is that there are circumstances in which increasing taxes will decrease revenues (by suppressing economic activity), and that in other circumstances a tax cut will be so swiftly stimulative that reduced rates will generate increased revenues.
But government is an adventure in particularities, not generalities. The supply-side wager (Reagan is betting the currency on it) is that cuts of the size and shape enacted in 1981, in the circumstances then obtaining, have put the country on a growth path that will, combined with spending restraint, produce approximate equilibrium between spending and revenues.
In pristine form, the supply-side argument combines an untoppable promise (a self-financing tax cut) with an ironclad alibi if the promise does not pan out: Always blame the Fed first. If tax cuts are followed by exploding deficits, the Federal Reserve Board can be blamed for not producing a "sufficient" expansion of the money supply. Sufficiency is, by definition, whatever "permits" growth sufficient to eliminate deficits.
In 1980 Reagan ran a relentlessly "blue skies" campaign based on the supply-side premise. But the instant the election was over he embraced a gray-skies memo from two congressmen, Jack Kemp and David Stockman. They said the nation was on the verge of an "economic Dunkirk." By December 1980, the embryonic administration was stressing spending cuts. But Reagan did not shrink government: He arranged it, moving resources toward defense. In December 1984, he is stressing the Grace Commission proposals for savings.
Regarding the Defense Department, the Grace report blithely "identified" program and procedural changes that would produce three-year savings of $78 billion. When Defense was asked its opinion, it came up with a sum: $300 million (about one-half of 1 percent of the Grace total). The Office of Management and Budget -- no nest of spendthrifts -- was asked to referee. OMB said that, considering the department's responsibilities and political realities, the realistic estimate of potential savings is . . . $2 billion. So the real argument is about only the $1.7 billion difference, not the Grace report's $78 billion.
The Grace report, with its phantom savings, is, in 1984, what the supply-side promise was in 1980: an excuse for evading hard choices. But to govern is to choose, and not just to choose, every four years, a different excuse for not facing facts. That is why "traditional" Republicans will continue to make themselves disagreeable by mentioning the odious principle that the public must pay its bills.
These traditionalists are, as The Wall Street Journal says, "hardly representative of supply-side conservatism." But the imprudent behavior of supply-siders regarding the deficit is making the phrase "supply-side conservatives" into a contradiction in terms.