This was supposed to be the year of the Conservative Trend, but, as 1979 comes to a close, there's not much to show for it.
According to the polls, most Americans identify themselves as conservatives, while merely a minority (29 percent) classify themselves as left of center. Only a handful (2 percent) are "far left."
Yet, looking back over the last 12 months, it is plain to see that the electorate still approves of and supports the dominant U.S. trend toward what can only be called the Insured Society -- the kind of modified socialism that involves big government, big spending and growth of the welfare state.
The most dramatic example of this development came in late December when Congress, with the blessing of the White House and public opinion, made a landmark decision to use enormous amounts of government funds to save a private enterprise, the Chrysler Corporation, from bankruptcy.
The action in itself was not unprecedentd; step by step in recent years, the government, in a haphazard, unplanned way, has gradually been broadening the welfare principle to private corporations as well as to individuals and various vital fields, such as agriculture and the military-industrial complex.
What makes the Chrysler salvage operation significant, aside from the magnitude of the federal loan guarnatee ($1.5 billion), is that, unlike the earlier rescue of the Lockheed Corporation, this was not an ad hoc decision. It was debated for months in the full knowledge that a significant and lasting national policy was at stake.
Unlike many of his colleagues who at first were openly skeptical of Chrysler's chances of winning congressional help, Sen. William Proxmire (D.-Wis.) chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, foresaw at once how it would turn out. Proxmire, who led the fight against Chrysler, as he did against the $250 million Lockheed resuscitation, flatly predicted month ago that the "Chrysler bail-out can't lose." He perceived that corporate welfarism, backed by business, banking labor and the White House, was irresistible and had already gone beyond the point of no return.
There is no denying that Washington, through the use of loan guarantees, has spread a little-noticed financial safety net under a wide range of business activities. Federal loans and loan guarantees to private businesses and public programs are estimated at over $400 billion for 1980.
Home buyers and farmers get the largest share of these federally insured loans, but loans also have gone to steel companies, airlines, railroads, ship-builders, housing developers and countless other enterprises, such as subway construction and saving like New York from collapse.
The steady expansion of the Insured Society now includes financial protection not only for the poor, the elderly, the ill, the handicapped and the unemployed, but also insurance against bank failures and defunct private pension funds. Moreover, insured loans now range from putting students through college to cushioning catastrophes like floods and huricanes.
When the 96th Congress opened this year, the Conservative Trend appeared to dominate the thinking on Capitol Hill. There was much talk of taming big government the welfare state. Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.), chairman of the American Conservative Union, said, "Our time has come." Sen. Roger Jepson (R-Iowa) said, "There's a new day in the Congress. There's a new climate. They ain't seen nothing yet."
Later, when Congress passed a tentative budget, it voted for less spending than proposed by President Carter and called for a balanced budget for fiscal 1980. But that's not the way it turned out, for Congress finally settled for a $547 million budget that was higher, not lower, than Carter's original figure. It also settled for deficit now estimated at $35 billion to $40 billion, or an increase of $10 billion over last year's deficit.
In the process, little more was heard about reducing Social Security or food stamp benefits. Congress also discovered, to the surprise of the conservatives, that the public favored wage and price controls, rationing of gasoline and a costly national health program.
In his own bow to the Conversative Trend, President Carter pledged he would balance the budget in his first term, but he is now about to offer the country his fiscal 1981 budget, which will project still another deficit, probably around $15 billion or more.
The president is readying the country's first $600 billion budget (actually, $615 billion). Despite his pose as a fiscal conservative, Carter is setting a post-World War II record for budget deficits. By next fall, they will total about $157 billion. He can always point out, however, that the two prececing Republican presidents -- Nixon and Ford -- rang up a combined deficit of $180 billion. The Insured Society does not come cheap, whatever its merits.