Be careful what you wish for; it may come true

Friday, September 7, 2001 at 1:00am

When Phil Gramm announced his retirement from the Senate this week, he proclaimed, "The things I came to Washington to do are done." And, in a sense, he's right. Gramm's 23-year career on Capitol Hill has been marked by one simple idea - "starve the government" - and the Bush tax cut that Gramm championed certainly does that.

But that boast falls under the ancient adage "be careful what you wish for; it may come true." The same trap that Gramm and Bush set for the Democrats has snapped shut on the Republicans. The president's own priorities - defense, education, energy, farms, missile defenses - will now be deprived of resources as well.

Gramm and Bush are both eager to take credit for those tax refund checks arriving soon at a mailbox near you, and that's fair enough. But there's a price to be paid. Just as the Reagan-era tax cuts that Gramm so ardently supported led to years of massive government deficits, the latest revenue reductions have a serious downside.

Gramm's passion was economics. As a young professor at Texas A&M, he caught the crest of the tax revolt that rolled across the country in the mid-'70s and helped elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980, two years after Gramm first won a House seat as a Democrat.

Like Reagan, Gramm realized that many working-class Democrats were tired of seeing their tax dollars funneled into programs that benefited others - the "welfare queens" of legend who bought beer with food stamps. Gramm made a hero out of a Texas printer named Dickie Flatt, the quintessential working man who never quite got the ink off of his fingertips and who "pulled the wagon" without government help.

By 1984 Gramm was a Republican, and the Dickie Flatt vote helped send him to the Senate, just as it was re-electing Reagan by a huge margin. But 17 years later the political landscape has changed significantly. Bill Clinton's welfare-reform bill has taken that issue off the table, and budget surpluses have made it harder to brand Democrats as "tax-and-spend liberals."

Moreover, GOP attacks on "waste, fraud and abuse" always masked a troubling truth: Republicans want to spend federal dollars, too, just on different things. Missiles instead of meals, farm subsidies instead of rent subsidies.

Give Gramm credit - he made an impact. Not only did he have an effective message, but he knew how to deliver it. There's an old joke: "What's the most dangerous place to stand in Washington?" The answer? Between Phil Gramm and a TV camera, which reflects an important point. As a young backbencher, Gramm realized that he could use television to go directly to the voters with his ideas, and he did so with much success.

But now Gramm and Bush have to live with the implications of their own success. Their tax cut will "starve the government," all right. But Democrats aren't the only ones who will go hungry.

Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts are syndicated columnists.

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