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Big government deja vu

IT IS 1965. You have just acquired a time machine. Eager to try it out, you set the controls to take you 40 years into the future. As the machine whirs its way through the fourth dimension, you find yourself thinking (of all things!) about politics.

In the America receding behind you, the president is Lyndon Johnson. The landslide winner of last year's election, he is forging ahead with his ''War on Poverty" and ''Great Society," spending billions of taxpayer dollars and creating vast new entitlement programs. His fellow Democrats control Congress and easily brush aside GOP complaints about creeping socialism and reckless federal spending.

The contrast between LBJ and Barry Goldwater, the Republican he defeated in November, could hardly be greater. A fiscal conservative, Goldwater had called for sharply reducing the federal government. He and his supporters wanted to end farm subsidies, privatize the Tennessee Valley Authority, and balance the federal budget. ''Our government continues to spend $17 million a day more than the government takes in," a Goldwater surrogate, former actor Ronald Reagan, had said in a fiery endorsement speech. ''We haven't balanced our budget in 28 out of the last 34 years."

The time machine slows to a halt. You climb out and set off to explore 2005. Many things have changed, you discover. The Cold War is over. Televisions broadcast in color. Motorists pump their own gas. The secretary of state is black -- and a woman!

But one thing that seems familiar is budgetary politics. One political party is still running the show in Washington and still spending as mindlessly as ever. The budget is now hundreds of billions of dollars in the red, and the national debt has soared to more than $7 trillion -- well over $1.5 trillion of it added during the current presidential administration. The incumbent in the White House, a Texan named Bush, burns through money even more extravagantly than the Texan named Johnson you left behind in 1964. ''Excluding military and homeland security," the American Conservative Union notes in a statement, ''American taxpayers have witnessed the largest spending increase under any preceding president and Congress since the Great Depression."

In the wake of two hurricanes in the South, Bush and Congress plan to spend as much as $200 billion for relief and reconstruction. When Bush is asked at a press conference, ''Who is going to have to pay for this recovery? And what's it going to do to the national debt?" he answers blithely: ''It's going to cost whatever it costs."

Fiscal conservatives are distressed by such irresponsibility. But when they propose to balance the whopping hurricane spending by cutting unnecessary outlays elsewhere, they are promptly slapped down. ''My answer to those that want to offset the spending is: Sure, bring me the offsets, I'll be glad to do it," says the House majority leader, Representative Tom DeLay. ''But nobody has been able to come up with any yet." Asked if that means that the federal budget has been trimmed of all fat, DeLay answers yes. ''We've pared it down pretty good."

The conservatives are aghast. ''Pared it down pretty good"? What about that bloated hog of a highway bill, they ask -- the one with more than 6,300 porkbarrel ''earmarks" adding up to $24 billion? Couldn't some of those be repealed? Or the new Medicare drug benefit, the one projected to cost $1.2 trillion over the next decade? How about delaying it for a year?

From everywhere come suggestions of items to eliminate or reduce: Corporate welfare. Public financing of presidential campaigns. Amtrak. The National Endowment for the Arts. Agribusiness subsidies. Congressional pay raises. From an automotive museum in Ohio to bicycle paths in Massachusetts, there is no shortage of budgetary blubber that could be eliminated. But Bush, who has never vetoed a single bill, shows no interest in fiscal self-control. And neither does the leadership in Congress, a crew of wastrels next to whom the LBJ Democrats of 40 years ago were penny-pinching skinflints.

Suddenly, with a start, you realize something astonishing: Bush is actually a Republican. The House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. They walk and talk and spend like old-time Democrats, but in fact they belong to the GOP. Somewhere along the way, the heirs of Goldwater and Reagan became clones of Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. The party of fiscal sobriety turned into a gang of reckless big spenders.

You wonder: Is this profligacy inevitable when either party controls all the levers of power? Is the body politic no healthier under a Republican monopoly than it was during all the years of Democratic monopoly? If so, Lord Acton was right: Unchecked and unbalanced, power inevitably corrupts.

Shaking your head sadly, you return to the time machine and set the controls for 1965.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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