John Ashcroft’s Coefficient of Unity

[My readers] may be familiar with my growing obsession with America’s looming disaster due to over-spending, debt and, most importantly, endless entitlement spending currently on auto-pilot, a kind of ravenous beast consuming most of our seed corn now and into the future.

I have previously described the entitlement crisis as a kind of “Death Star” hovering over this and future generations of our countrymen and women, including my eleven grandchildren.

Sarah Palin is not my choice for president, but her recent description of our hemorrhaging fiscal situation as “generational theft” pushed all my buttons. You go, girl!

As it turns out, I had a chance encounter in an elevator with my former boss, John Ashcroft, former Attorney General of the United States, U.S. Senator, Governor and Attorney General for Missouri. In fact, I owe my current career in environmental and natural resources work to him. He appointed me to his cabinet as director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the state EPA (with parks, energy and soil conservation thrown in for good measure), in his second term as governor. I had more fun in that job than any human being has a right to have — even with the headache of finally resolving the Times Beach Superfund settlement.

John (as he always prefers to be called) invited me up to his office to chat about an upcoming Lincoln Day celebration back in Missouri at which he was going to make a tribute to retiring U.S. Senator Kit Bond. He was looking well and displayed his customary ease in conversation which I have experienced even when he was in public office and up to his ears in alligators. In time, the conversation turned to the debt and whether or not the Republicans will be up to the challenge of reining in federal spending.

I shared with him my concerns about the Republicans’ sorry record on spending, earmarks, entitlement reform, and their own failure to even consider President George W. Bush’s reforms for Social Security.

John Ashcroft considered the matter and first responded with the observation that certainty was not given to us in this world much less in the political sphere. You have to consider the probabilities over time. In terms of the current Democratic dispensation, the prospects were pretty slim that they were going to do anything substantive about spending, entitlements or the debt.

The Republicans, however, despite their past lapses, have the political incentive to tackle spending, even entitlement reform, at least at the outset. He cited the 1990s, admittedly good economic times, when Republicans supported balanced budgets and reformed welfare.

But, again, nothing is certain. John Ashcroft believes that all wings of the party — social as well as economic and national security — have to rally around the spending issue, first and foremost. He believes this for both policy and political reasons. Clearly, the debt cannot continue to grow, indefinitely, without wrecking the country. But, politically, for the Republican Party as a center-right party, John believes that “the coefficient of unity is the highest on spending.” In other words, the spending situation, now in extremis, draws in all elements of the Republican base as well as the restless independent voters who see the current trend as an existential threat to all that makes this country unique and exceptional.

John went on to tie in these fiscal concerns with families and the future of our children. “Stealing from your kids is as ugly a picture as you can imagine,” said the former Attorney General. He even went so far as to liken it to a kind of prospective “child abuse” for generations to come, depriving them of their birthright, as Americans, in terms of economic opportunity, the ability to raise, clothe and shelter a family, and pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as they see it.

While we did not discuss the consequences for national security of debt and escalating entitlement spending, they are self-evident as evidenced by the steadily declining military budgets and commitments of the Western European welfare states over the past 40 or 50 years.

I mentioned the recent proposal by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) to reform, simultaneously, both entitlements and the tax code, which even the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says would balance the budget without raising taxes. I told John that I would vote for it in a heart beat, but I would not want to predict what the majority of sitting Republican congressmen and women would do since it takes away benefits as well as reduces tax rates. John indicated that he hears very good things about Paul Ryan but was not familiar with his proposal.

I came away from my conversation with John Ashcroft more hopeful than I have been in a long time. His view of both the economic necessity and the political benefits of focusing on spending made sense. It is a necessary starting point in a political realignment that, eventually, must go beyond reducing discretionary spending and actually restructure, reduce, or means-test the big three entitlements of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

We are dealing with probabilities, compounded by the vagaries of human nature. Yet, hope is a theological rather than a rational or natural virtue. Indeed, it is hope that brought most of our ancestors to these shores in the first place. So we cannot give up on the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage