AT loose in the land is an uneasy sense that the most powerful, near-richest nation on earth needs to get its house in order.
It does. And not because of any misty superstition about the coming end of a century and millennium.
The causes of unease are not puzzling:
*The demographic surge of the baby boom generation toward Social Security and Medicare eligibility early in the next century.
*The youth explosion in third world nations, leading toward contracting out work from richer nations and immigration pressures within those nations.
*The undermining of traditional morality caused by (1) worldwide migration from millions of villages into mega-cities and (2) the global spread of violence- and sex-spattered entertainment, and get-rich-quick dreams.
*New technologies causing widespread anxiety as millions of workers fear layoffs - despite the tens of millions of jobs new technologies create.
*Transformation of the biggest creditor nation on earth to the biggest debtor - largely because of three decades of deficit spending. In some years federal debt was made more hazardous by simultaneous increases in corporate and personal debt.
So much for broad causes. What about remedies?
Here a word needs to be said about national attention span. We've flitted from health-care reform to deficit reform to entitlement review to immigration control to moral renewal, without methodically fixing one matter before turning to another. On the concrete matter of deficit reduction, for instance, an outsider might justifiably call the US 'procrasti-nation.'
Only a few weeks ago Congress, President Clinton, the news media, and much of the public were focused on finding a formula for tapering the federal deficit down to zero in seven years. At the core, that meant reforming Medicare, Medicaid, other entitlements, and eventually Social Security to control runaway costs before baby boomers retire onto the tax load of their less numerous children.
When Clinton, Gingrich, and Dole deadlocked on deficit-cutting, the 50 state governors stepped in with a flawed but helpful compromise plan.
Now what happens?
House, Senate, and White House negotiators are talking about resuming negotiations soon. They have a narrow window of just a few weeks before they may have to give up, raise the debt ceiling, and, in the immortal baseball phrase, wait till next year to do something about deficits and debt.
So where is the public pressure for action on this once-urgent priority?
Instead of anxiously contemplating the deficit-cutting symbolism of closed national parks, Americans are diverted to watching a protest candidate posturing at Mt. Rushmore Park. Instead of supporting Rep. Lamar Smith's sensible legislation to improve immigration controls, they're watching candidates orate grandly about doing something next year on immigration.
Only the Concord Coalition, headed by former Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas and former GOP Sen. Warren Rudman seems to be minding the store on one major entitlement problem that could haunt the federal budget for years to come. That's a little-noticed shift in the governors' deficit compromise that would turn Medicaid from a safety net for the poor to a costly middle-class nursing home entitlement.
Messrs. Clinton, Dole, Forbes, and Lugar are talking fitfully about the job-creating success of the thousands of firms born of new technologies. But who's pushing public education to prepare science-literate (and just plain literate) students for those new jobs? And whose providing incentives for schools and businesses to speed cooperative retraining of laid-off workers for those new industries?
Each presidential candidate has spoken out about moral vacuity in the film, TV, and record industries - as have Vice President Al Gore and his wife. Two thumbs up for that. Jawboning aimed at Americans' consciences is more useful than legislation in this First Amendment realm.
But in the end voters have a right to expect action, not just oratory, as the aim of politics.
Even when Clinton had a Democratic majority in Congress, he often seemed stymied by his own party leaders.
Now the shoe is on the Republican foot. Majority whip Tom DeLay came out of a recent GOP legislative planning session to say about his party's eventual nominee: "He'll have to do his agenda and we'll do ours. Hopefully he'll get ours."
Hopefully indeed. We'd like to urge Mr. Clinton and Mr. X to make a simple, private pledge: No more not-on-my-watch tactics. And meanwhile the president and Congress should show the way. No more procrastination on those priority areas that clearly call for action.
It's all very well to say let the American people decide at the polls. But that shouldn't become an excuse for wasting the next 10 months.