Politicians almost never allow us a glimpse into what’s really going on in their minds. So when Dick Lamm, Colorado’s “Governor Gloom,” does, it’s hard to resist the urge to perform armchair psychoanalysis. This book is about the major problems facing the United States today, but it is elaborately set up as a work of quasi-fiction, taking place 15 years in the future—two different futures, actually, featuring two different presidents. For the first two-thirds of the book, the president is Susan J. Hesperus (elected 1996). The blizzard of memos she requests from her cabinet officers gives Lamm a chance to lay out in full the predictions that earned him his nickname. Then, in the last third, Lamm invents an alternative future, without Hesperus but with a Maine senator named Martin Morgenstern, who is elected president in 1992 and heroically averts all the crises that earlier in the book (but later chronologically—it’s confusing) faced Hesperus. A history of the Morgenstern administration is Lamm’s way of giving his solutions to all the woes he has described. Hesperus, the first woman president, never appears onstage, though it’s worth noting that her name means “evening star,” as in Lamm’s idea that it’s evening in America. Morgenstern, on the other hand, is praised lavishly in a way that suggests it’s how Lamm sees himself: “Leadership is a matter of asking the big questions… what he was offering was a very sophisticated set of assumptions… his intense and eloquent style could move-many people, even when the message was like Cassandra’s.”

Also, though Lamm doesn’t say so, Morgenstern is, judging by his name, the first Jewish president; Lamm himself is a Unitarian. What can this mean? Either a) that Lamm, knowing where the political money is for a skeptical-of-unions Democrat, is thinking ahead to his next campaign or b) that, while Lamm isn’t Jewish, his fantasy-self is, probably because he thinks of Jewishness as meaning super-braininess. What he’s most vain about is his tough-minded intelligence.

Indeed, Lamm is what liberals spent last year accusing Gary Hart and neoliberalism of being—very smart but unsentimentally analytical and prone to use the phrase “new ideas” as code for an agenda of dismantling the social welfare state. Some of Lamm’s causes will be familiar to readers of this magazine: the overgenerosity of federal pensions and entitlement programs, the poor quality of teaching in public schools, the need to play dirty with Japan on trade, the evils of doctors and lawyers. Within the self-imposed constraints of the form he has chosen, he argues for them eloquently (though there are too many Bartlett’s-style quotes, including, inevitably, one from Edward Gibbon).

He is at his very best on the issue that rocketed him to fame a couple of years ago: our over-commitment of resources to prolonging the lives of the terminally ill. The rate of increase in the percentage of the Gross National Product going to health care is amazing, and, though some of this money goes to rich doctors and the rich lawyers who sue them for malpractice, the lion’s share is for the noble purpose of providing high-quality medical care for everybody. We are bored by preventive medicine but captivated by the technological razzle-dazzle and soap-opera drama of procedures such as artificial heart implantations, which prolong life for a short time at tremendous expense. (President Reagan, that enemy of government spending, calls up artificial heart patients and proclaims them national heroes.) Lamm says Medicare alone spent $15 billion last year on people in their last six months of life.

Even under a completely socialized system, medical advances would make carrying out the Hippocratic Oath more and more expensive. If, after all possible costs have been controlled and all possible preventive measures taken, health care still has to be rationed, better to cut out the terminally ill than the poor. It takes courage for Lamm to say so.

Feed trees, not people

Lamm’s thinking on other issues is less original, but he does bring a strong intellect to the issues he addresses. He does not share Jimmy Carter’s flaw of being unable to weave a thousand bright threads into a tapestry. His approach to issues is so orderly, in fact, that it almost takes the form of a catechism. Step One is noticing a drain on resources—excessive military pensions, interest on the debt, and the like—which are usually caused by the short time horizon and addiction to the free lunch that plague every democratic state; we are, as Lamm likes to put it, depleting capital. Step Two is “reality therapy,” in which the harsh, unpleasant truths about the situation are pointed out, often through the rhetorical technique of projecting alarming trend lines far enough into the future until they become disasters. And step three is “triage”: ruthlessly getting rid of the unnecessary claims on resources to preserve the overall health of the nation.

Lamm’s views are exactly opposite from the insistent rosiness of Reagan, Jack Kemp, and George Gilder. If anything, Lamm errs on the side of being the boy who cries wolf, building up every concern into a major crisis. The solutions to his problems, when he reveals them, are surprisingly incremental. To say that only under circumstances of a broad-scale national collapse would they be considered by Congress is a stretcher.

So what is Lamm, politically? If, in The Washington Monthly’s corner of neoliberalism, the central concern, from which all the specifics flow, is a desire for the United States to function as a community in the noblest and freest sense of that word, then Lamm isn’t in that corner. He’s part Paul Ehrlich-style environmentalist, terrified about overpopulation and favoring tight immigration controls; part Club of Rome-style limits-to-growth advocate; and part Western-states mugwump, extremely suspicious of the illogical, inefficient component of politics. He is for growth, but the notion of resource depletion so dominates his mind that he can’t really conceive of our society generating more jobs and prosperity as it consumes. Instead he’s drawn to canards about the disappearance of the middle class.

Realizing that he will be accused of being too coolly rational and lacking compassion, he includes a sermon on “The Sin of Softheartedness,” but this backfires spectacularly. Under the banner of “reality theology and triage ethics,” he comes out against sending aid to famine victims in Ethiopia on, believe it or not, religious grounds. Because of limited food supplies, ultimately it’s them or us, and “the church must eventually bless what people do to survive.” There is something fascinating about a high office-holder who is willing to publish the recommendation “that we let God’s judgment take place in much of the Third World,” but when, a few pages later, he becomes genuinely emotional over not people but forests (“We are the ones who must speak for the trees!”), it’s creepy.

Lamm does have the courage of his cold-blooded convictions. He completely lacks the paralytic fear of offending anyone—the main problem in national politics right now. In general, there seems to be more courage and less interest-group domination in state governments than in Washington. James Blanchard of Michigan balanced his budget; Bill Clinton of Arkansas made teachers take competency tests; Mark White of Texas raised taxes to pay for better education; and the list goes on. Ten or 15 years ago it was possible to believe that pure ignorance of everything except rhetoric kept members of Congress from discussing issues like pensions, tax loopholes, and industrial decline. Today, problems in the resource-depletion category are so obvious (especially the federal deficit) that it can’t be the reason; in fact there’s a good deal of sub rosa agreement accumulating for ideas like Lamm’s. Old-line liberals who argue that there’s no “constituency” to support a politician who will talk about, say, the problems of Social Security, have a lot of governors’ races to explain. There seems to be a greater willingness among voters to face up to our most difficult problems than Washington thinks.

Surely a large part of the explanation for the urge among national politicians to deny reality is the spectacular success of Reagan, who promised that every day would be like the Fourth of July and that we would grow out of the deficit. Politicians never fail to notice election results, and they saw how this pitch did at the polls.

In fairness to Reagan and the rest of the reality-deniers, state and national politics are different. A gubernatorial candidate can run, win, and govern as a pure pragmatist, but a presidential candidate has to present a sweeping vision; we expect that of presidents, and rightly so. The crucial next step for Democratic presidential candidates is to figure out how to talk seriously about what we need to do in the context of a vision that’s appealing. Gary Hart came across as a walking stack of position papers; Lamm comes with both words and music, but the music, alas, is triage.

There’s more wrong with triage-based politics than unpalatability. Often in our history it has seemed to many that our society is a fixed pie, that the chief danger to it is overeating, and that the solution is to cut back on immigration, social services, foreign aid, and the use of resources. Lamm is squarely in this tradition, which is why immigrants scare him and the political uses of compassion make him suspicious. But at every point so far, what happened instead was that engagement with, rather than excision of, problems led to their solution. (By the way, Lamm admiringly calls President Morgenstern a “surgeon.”) We found new resources. Technological advances created new jobs. Social programs were made to work. The pie expanded. Deep faith in a fluid democracy, not deep fear of its excesses, should restore the passion to look at our problem head on. 

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.