In 1997 the net seemed to be closing in on the Clinton Administration. Congressional Republicans, pushed along by a gung-ho group of young House members, were refusing to increase the government’s authority to borrow unless the President signed a balanced budget. If that threatened a U.S. default, so be it; it was a price worth paying to get Clinton to do the right thing. The very idea made the Clinton Administration squeal: Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin warned in September that failing to raise the limit “could cause profound damage to our country,” as even the possibility of a default would “do permanent damage to our credit standing.”

A look at today’s budgetary madness.
A look at today's budgetary madness.
A look at today’s budgetary madness.

Four months later the debt limit still hasn’t been raised, President Clinton hasn’t signed a balanced budget, and the nation’s credit rating is just fine. As soon as the President vetoed the GOP’s debt-limit bill in mid November, Rubin tapped federal pension funds to cover Treasury’s obligations, a dubious move that he himself called “unprecedented.” But it completed a political hat trick. Rubin’s disingenuous warnings of the dire consequences of GOP tactics had created the impression that Republicans are “extreme”; the defense of a possible default by some Republicans tended to confirm it; and, finally, Rubin’s easy evasion of the limit undercut one of the pillars of the GOP strategy of confrontation. “That was our ace in the hole,” says one Senate aide.

And, as it turns out, it all was exquisitely planned. A memo to Rubin from as early as June 27 included a nine-page attachment: “Outline of Debt Limit Strategy.” The document calls for “Close project management throughout phases” and “Ongoing briefings and centralized messages” for “administration officials.” The heavily edited memo — entire pages have been cut out — is one of a cache of documents the Joint Economic Committee has obtained from Treasury that suggest the department always knew it had a way out of the debt squeeze and never had any intention of working with Congress, which would have been the responsible thing to do. Instead, it orchestrated a shameless scare campaign, both to score political points and, apparently, to seduce the GOP into over-reliance on the debt limit. It worked.

The Republican charge that started with the Contract with America has turned into not quite a retreat, but a haphazard assault on a President who has outflanked their every attack. The latest Clinton trump card was producing a seven-year balanced budget scored by the Congressional Budget Office. The proposal is bogus (all the savings are put off until 2000 and beyond), but it puts the GOP in the position of rejecting a budget that meets its loudly trumpeted criteria: seven years, CBO-scored. What to do? “First, we don’t even have an agreement that we need a strategy,” says one distraught GOP operative. “Second, if we had a strategy, we don’t have the wherewithal to get other people in the party to buy in. Third, if we did, we don’t have the discipline to hold it for more than two and a half days because these [guys] will run off and do something different. So, there’s real trouble.”


The GOP disarray has several sources, some fundamental, others involving poor tactics. The deepest cause is that after the 1994 election Republicans believed their own rhetoric: that their victory was inevitable, a product of the shifting tides of history. So, just as a stunned White House and a new Democratic minority were willing to do anything to effect a comeback in 1996 — including lie — the GOP was determined to govern; it embarked on a “historic” budget-balancing effort that in some cases meant suppressing partisan self-interest — on Medicare votes, for instance. From the start, hot-button issues like crime were given a back seat to a good-faith effort to make the numbers come out right. While the White House played cynical politics, the GOP did exactly the opposite.

Emblematic of the new attitude was the exclusion of Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour from crucial Gingrich – Dole strategy meetings. Barbour had played a key role in recent GOP successes, from the campaign on the Contract with America in the fall of 1994 to the GOP’s public-education drive on Medicare last summer. All were party-wide efforts undertaken with an eye to the political bottom line. He helped make the Dole – Gingrich meetings happen. But early last fall Barbour was told he was no longer welcome (fingers point to Dole’s chief of staff, Sheila Burke, for prompting the decision). While the White House tapped its top political talent for the budget fight, says one RNC insider, “we brought in the green eyeshades.” And it showed.

TAKE the continuing resolution (CR) Republicans passed to keep the government running in November. The CR included a provision to increase Medicare premiums; it was meant to avoid a glitch that would have had premiums senselessly drop, then rise again in 1996. Clinton predictably ignored the details, vetoing the CR and slamming the higher premiums. “At the beginning I was very, very afraid of doing this, of putting it on the CR,” is how House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer explains the decision. “And then I began to look at the options and I said, Well, wait a minute. If we don’t do it, it’s going to be worse in May in an election year. And so we might as well take the heat now rather than in May. And then toward the end of our leadership meetings I began to look at it further and say, Wait a minute. [Clinton's] going to veto this CR anyhow. Why should we take the heat for putting this on there and giving him an excuse that will cover up his real reason for vetoing it?”

That’s what happened. At the root of the GOP confusion on this and other matters was a misreading of Clinton. After the elections Republicans proclaimed the President “irrelevant.” Some conservatives even argued that it didn’t matter if he were re-elected. A related — and more understandable — misapprehension was that the President would move to the center (“triangulate”) with an eye to his re-election. Instead, he shifted left and proved not just oblivious to good-government considerations, but more willing to play dirty than even partisan Republicans had imagined. And as Republicans wrangled last fall with unavoidable issues like timber sales in the Tongass National Forest, the Administration simply blew them away on communications. “When they come out you can feel it,” says one top GOP aide. “You can lash yourself to the mast.”

This obliterated another leg of Republican strategy, which was attempting to govern through appropriations bills. As the balanced budget squeezed out the rest of the GOP agenda, the appropriations bills — meant, in theory, to deal only with spending issues — became vehicles for conservative policy in areas ranging from abortion to grant reform. The idea was that Clinton would swallow an uncomfortable measure or two to preserve funding for essential functions of government. Not so. The President broadcast his intentions on one of the first appropriations bills to reach his desk, a responsible bill funding the legislative branch at reduced levels. Clinton vetoed it solely to score points against Congress — and got away with it. That pattern has been repeated even after Republican concessions, let alone further attempts to shoe-horn controversial policy into bills.

The debt-limit misfire, the ease with which the President avoided responsibility for vetoed appropriations bills and the two partial government shutdowns, as well as his unexpected determination not to cut a deal, had the effect of handing the advantage of constancy to the White House. Republicans were left angling for new traction every day. Newt Gingrich in particular turned out to be less than a rock of resolve. “He won’t stay in one spot,” says one close observer. “Therefore we lost consistency. We kept changing our message and we spoke in Washington language.” The final irony was that the poll numbers (all the Administration seems to care about) were beginning to turn against Clinton in both shutdowns just as Republicans called it quits; the GOP got all the pain and none of the gain.

Barring a breakthrough with the White House (Republicans are still threatening to hold the debt limit hostage), the question for Republicans should be how to put the balanced budget and the remaining appropriations bills behind them. The sooner the better. Then they can move on to what they eschewed last year: focused assaults on Democratic vulnerabilities like crime and affirmative action. So far, perhaps the GOP’s most politically clever bill is the ban on partial-birth abortions, tight legislation that appeals to the GOP base and at the same time puts President Clinton in a box. It was this kind of politics that former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell specialized in before the 1992 elections, as he ignored the imperatives of governing and forced George Bush into a series of tough vetoes. If the GOP does the same this year, the tides of history will take care of themselves.

FDR himself stressed the notion of limits as the flip side of largess with Social Security. “This act does not offer anyone an easy life,” he said in a 1938 fireside chat. It would “furnish that minimum necessary to keep a foothold; and that is the kind of protection Americans want.”

Indeed, Phillip Longman, in a provocative new book, The Return of Thrift, argues that Social Security was enacted largely to beat back costlier demands for universal old-age assistance championed by Francis Townsend, whose 10 million followers made him the one-man aarp of his day. Confining Social Security’s benefits to those who had first contributed payroll taxes was the ingenious way to limit government’s exposure, while giving Roosevelt the illusion of insurance he famously needed so that “no damn politician” could ever scrap his plan. In both senses, this “contributory” design worked. In 1940, less than 1 percent of the elderly received Social Security. Even as late as 1953, less than half the elderly got benefits, since they’d either retired before the system started or hadn’t contributed long enough to qualify. Only in the ’60s did America’s new policy hubris spark the huge expansions that contained the seeds of today’s reckoning. But these were heady days.

sspIn 1967, Nobel economist Paul Samuelson wryly quipped that “the beauty about social insurance is that it is actuarially unsound,” relying on a growing population and rising real incomes to pay each generation of retirees more than they paid into the system. “A growing nation,” Samuelson concluded, “is the greatest Ponzi game ever contrived.” Bob Ball, a program official and advocate who has figured in these debates for half a century, captured the spirit when he wrote that “‘a minimum income for all’ might have been a stirring objective when it was proposed by Sidney and Beatrice Webb about 1910, but we can do much better than that in the United States in 1966.” For retirees, the pleasant surprises had just begun.

In 1972, benefits were increased across the board by 20 percent. Then, in what Richard Nixon would call his biggest economic mistake, they were indexed to inflation. Ironically, raising benefits each year by the consumer price index was conceived as an effort to cap the benefit bidding wars that had become a bipartisan pre-election ritual. Then came the great inflation of the 1970s. A disastrous and inadvertent “double indexing” in the new benefit formula made matters worse, showering billions in mistaken windfalls for several years. (When this error was finally fixed in 1977, the extraordinary “Notch Baby” lobby was born, furious at being denied their “entitlement” to this excess.)In the late 1970s, benefits were tweaked again to rise automatically in tandem with real wages, thus promising each successive cohort of retirees higher real benefits. All told, in the 1970s benefits grew ten times faster in real terms than did the number of Americans aged 65 and over. Not only were these growth rates unaffordable in the long run; in the short term, they unfairly helped seniors hog the entire “peace dividend” from the end of the Vietnam War. The prospect of ever-rising benefits, moreover, probably suppressed the savings people undertook to plan for their own retirement. Such personal responsibility seemed less urgent, after all, when the share of pre-retirement earnings replaced by Social Security was rising from 38 percent in 1974 to 51 percent in 1981. With payroll tax revenues unable to keep pace, this cost explosion brought the system’s finances to the brink of crisis, prompting the big bipartisan fix of 1983. Those reforms raised payroll taxes, taxed benefits for the first time and trimmed future costs by slowly phasing in the higher retirement age of 67 during the first quarter of the next century.

Still, typical workers retiring today with $11,000 in Social Security get three times more in real terms than did their grandparents in 1940. What’s the moral of this story? After decades of expansion, FDR’s “foothold” has expanded enough to make the tradeoffs foreseen by the system’s founders ripe for revisiting. Only a grinch could grumble about the most effective anti-poverty program in history; but only a fool would fail to ask whether the Ponzi scheme is sustainable, and at what price. Today, $15 billion in Social Security goes annually to households with retirement incomes of more than $100,000; $60 billion to those with more than $50,000.

“We have to go to seniors and say, ‘Look, we can’t keep this up,’” says Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, a Democrat. “Yes, poverty is a concern. But please don’t tell me that every American over 65 is foraging in the alley for garbage or eating dog food. They’re going to Vegas with their colas–while kids don’t have computers in class.”

Kerrey’s right: thanks to our aging population, longer lifespans, generous benefit hikes and stagnant growth, the one thing certain about Social Security is that before the baby boom retires something will give. Call it Ponzi’s revenge. There were seven workers paying into the system for every retiree in 1950. In 1990 there were five; by 2030 there will be fewer than three. Life expectancy, meanwhile, has increased by fourteen years since Social Security was enacted, while the retirement age has yet to budge from 65, meaning benefits are drawn far longer. Financially, these trends mean the “pay-as-you-go” nature of Social Security, in which today’s workers are taxed to fund the retirement of their parents, simply can’t continue without big tax hikes or benefits cuts for tomorrow’s workers. If you’re under 40, the first question is: How high can taxes go?

Payroll taxes, which hit low- and middle-income families the hardest (since they’re imposed only on the first $62,700 of earnings), have already risen 3 percent per decade since the 1950s. At today’s combined worker and employer rate of 15.3 percent (including Medicare and disability), they’re already higher than income taxes for most Americans. Flat taxer Steve Forbes could have saved his $30 million: thanks to the payroll tax, the effective rate paid by families earning the median $40,000 income is already the same as that facing families earning twice as much. And that’s just today. Without reform, as we slip the bill for an astonishing $8 trillion in unfunded Social Security promises to our kids, Social Security costs will rise from 12 to 17 percent of payroll by 2030. Toss in Medicare, and we’re talking a combined tab of 33 percent of payroll.

Skeptics argue reasonably that this payroll burden could soar as high as 40 percent, since the official forecasts–supervised by Commissioner Chater, of the Shady Statistic–are rosier than anything the economy has experienced in the last twenty years. The alternative to this tax holocaust? Benefit cuts of 20 to 35 percent, depending on how long we wait to act. Unfortunately, the forces leading the charge for inertia have the upper hand, thanks to the Three Great Myths of Social Security that they, and petrified politicians, refuse to debunk: You’re just getting back what you paid in. Consider the facts (as documented by Gene Steuerle of the Urban Institute). Early generations of beneficiaries paid in little and rode the rising benefit wave. The result? The average one-earner couple retiring in 1960 got back eleven times what they paid in (after accounting for inflation and interest). By the early 1980s, thanks to the growing payroll tax bite, that average couple had to scrape by on four times what they paid in. But in absolute dollars those retirees (many still collecting) enjoy the biggest windfalls Social Security will ever bestow. How big? On lifetime payroll contributions of $50,000, they receive an astonishing $210,000 in benefits for a net lifetime “profit” of $160,000 (all in 1993 dollars).

For many boomers retiring in 2010, and the bulk of the Generation Xers who come after, the lifetime loss will run to the hundreds of thousands. Social Security is “progressive.” It’s one thing to pay windfalls, quite another to save your biggest bonanzas for retirees with the highest incomes. But this fact–that Social Security is regressive within generations–is not well understood. It’s commonly argued that the regressive payroll tax through which the system is financed is more than offset by the progressive tilt of its benefit structure, which gives lower-wage workers a higher percentage of their pre-retirement pay. But, as the Urban Institute’s Steuerle has stressed, the system still ladles out larger amounts of money the richer you are. This isn’t a paradox, because the benefit formula is based on wages. A lawyer who gets a 25 percent “replacement rate” on his eligible earnings will collect more money during his retirement than a dishwasher who gets 50 percent of his. This trend is compounded by Social Security’s spousal benefit, which (unlike that of most other nations) gives spouses 50 percent of the worker’s benefit regardless of income level, so that more money goes to better-off spouses. In this respect, Social Security resembles our other great regressive entitlement, the mortgage interest deduction, which offers a big housing subsidy to someone like Arianna Huffington, while Arianna’s maid, if she rents, gets no subsidy at all. It’s OK, there’s a trust fund.

Remember how awful it was when you realized there wasn’t a Tooth Fairy? Well, brace yourself for another rude awakening: the Social Security trust fund is an accounting fiction. While it’s true that about $30 billion more comes in today via Social Security taxes than gets paid out in benefits, that “surplus” is immediately invested in Treasury bills, in effect loaning the money to Uncle Sam to mask the deep deficits in the rest of the budget. The so-called surpluses building up in this trust fund are thus nothing but IOUs. Making good on them when the baby boom retires won’t be pretty, since by that time (starting in 2013, if you believe Ms. Chater) we’ll be paying out far more in Social Security than payroll taxes bring in. The tragedy is that today’s “surpluses” were designed by 1983′s reformers to add to national savings, in hopes of boosting economic growth before the big bills came due. Instead, they became an easy way to evade hard choices in the rest of the budget. For the record, the head-in-the-sand crowd insists these trust funds (there’s one for Medicare, too) are as “real” as any private retirement account holding Treasury bonds. Maybe it’s time we switched to a clearer label: the “Pass the Huge Tax Hike to the Kids” Funds. The force of these myths in preserving the status quo adds generational insult to injury when it comes to government priorities already dramatically skewed to favor the elderly at the expense of children and long-term growth. The federal government spends eleven times more on each senior than on each child under 18. (Adding in state and local spending for public education lowers that ratio, but not materially.) Today’s deficits, a function of these choices and our refusal to pay for them, consume half our meager national savings, dooming the rising generation to a stagnant economy and depressed wages. Fear of the seniors’ lobby takes so many benefits off the table that both parties must slash forward-looking investments in R&D and infrastructure to show even bogus paths to budget balance, while half of eligible kids are told we can’t “afford” their Head Start. One in five American children–15 million, at last count–live in poverty, a higher rate than any other age group. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, meanwhile, who differ little on these arrangements, will shortly swear that this presidential election is all about the future. What is to be done? None of this is a brief for generational war, though, given the long odds against halting the madness anytime soon, a little generational self-defense wouldn’t hurt. For starters, we could enact a successor package of modest 1983-style reforms, around which broad consensus has already gelled as analysts peer with dread over the horizon. By conventional standards, even these steps–likely to be offered by Social Security’s official Advisory Council, whose overdue report is expected by May–require political “courage.” But, compared to the Ultimate Fixes we’ll get to in a minute, they’re a walk in the park.

Tax benefits.

Unlike most advanced nations, we tax only a small portion of Social Security benefits today. That’s not fair. Why should an elderly couple with $40,000 in retirement income pay far less in taxes than a young family with two kids and the same earnings? (Especially when you consider that the seniors have put their mortgage and college expenses behind them.) Bring uncovered state and local workers into Social Security. While participation in Social Security is compulsory for virtually all forms of employment, 4 million of today’s 22 million state and local government workers still aren’t included, thanks to old sensitivities about federalism that have eroded only piecemeal over the years. Bringing them in would help fund the system with new payroll taxes immediately, while most of these workers won’t collect benefits for many years. Raise the retirement age faster. We agreed to go to 67 in 1983, but, in the usual gutsy way, that increase proceeds incrementally–by two months each year starting in 2003. Then, inexplicably, between 2008 and 2019, there’s no increase at all. Legend has it that congressional staffers intervened to make sure their own eligibility wouldn’t be delayed. Raising it instead by three months a year, to 68 by 2008, would be fairer, given our lengthening lifespans. Remember, it’s really an eligibility age, not a retirement age. You can always retire earlier; you just won’t be entitled to full Social Security benefits. Together, these and similar reforms too dull to detail would push the system’s cash-flow crisis back a few years and shave up to a third from today’s long-term imbalance. Yet they do nothing for the two biggest problems we face: the big losses younger workers can now expect on their payroll taxes; and the urgent need to raise national savings (and thus investment) to spark the growth to pay for all those graying boomers. Broadly speaking, the big thinking on these questions falls into three camps: Social Democrats, Privatizers and Progressives. Social Democrats. Brookings Institution economist Henry Aaron, typical of the breed, says the “beginning of wisdom” on Social Security is to calm down, since its cost will rise by only 2 percent of GDP when the baby boom retires. Well, that may be the beginning of wisdom, but the next installment is that 2 percent of GDP is a helluva lot of money–in today’s dollars, an extra $140 billion a year. And that’s before we add the bill for Medicare, slated to rise by another 5 percent of GDP! If you think public budgets are shortchanging the future today, such complacency is appalling. What inspires it? Social Democrats argue that entitling everyone to similar government benefits creates common interests across social classes. They’re convinced that, without this, support for programs that redistribute money to the needy would erode. (See “It’s Christmas: Let’s Means-Test!,” tnr, January 8 & 15.) Such faith can be so blinding, however, that it’s led Bob Ball, the preeminent Social Democrat on today’s Advisory Council (and Ms. Chater’s predecessor from 1962-73), to proffer a deception masquerading as an innovation that “saves” the system. Ball’s plan, which enjoys the support of six of the Advisory Council’s thirteen members, leaves soaring benefits untouched. To be able to pay them and raise returns to young workers, he’d invest up to 40 percent of the trust fund in the stock market, to take advantage of the higher returns historically available there. As details have come out, concerns about Ball’s plan have focused on the risk that market crashes could imperil retirement security; or on the specter of Robert Reich’s secret plan for corporate America once Uncle Sam owns one-seventh of the stock market.In economic terms, however, the real sin is that Ball’s scheme is a shell game. Here’s why: if trust fund monies are put into stocks, then someone in the private sector will have to buy the Treasury bills that Social Security picks up today. The net result (along with a risk of higher interest rates) is merely to shuffle asset ownership in the economy, with Social Security’s higher paper returns offset by somebody else’s lower returns. There’s no increase in overall national savings and investment, the first litmus test a reform plan must pass to be credible.

“I think there’s a lot in what you say,” Ball admitted when I raised this critique.

Then why go this route? Ball didn’t think it politically feasible to call for an immediate tax hike and to put these new monies (which would represent increased national savings) into equities. Between the rock of his reluctance to cut benefits and the hard place of his refusal to raise taxes Ball–whose career has heretofore been a testament to enlightened public service–has essentially told the next generation, “You’re on your own.” Privatizers. A motley crew that includes drooling Wall Street brokerages, the libertarian Cato Institute and Fidel Vargas, the 27-year-old Democratic mayor of Baldwin Park, California (and the Advisory Council’s token Generation Xer), privatizers are obsessed with the higher returns young workers could earn on their own. But the only question that matters is the one they typically duck–how to get from here to there. The trick in switching midstream from “pay-as-you-go” to a pre-funded private retirement system is that one generation has to pay twice: first for the retirement of its parents and then for its own, since younger folks in a private scheme will start paying for themselves. Chile, whose successful privatization of Social Security these reformers love to tout, paid for the change thanks in part to the 5 percent of GDP budget surplus they were running when they switched. No such luck here.

The Advisory Council’s privatization option–which, in testament to how fast the debate is changing, will get five of thirteen votes–would spread the transition costs, relying on a seventy-year sales tax of 1 percent and more than $1 trillion in new debt, both sure to be political showstoppers. It would dedicate half the current payroll tax to a safety-net pension pegged at 70 percent of the poverty line, while forcing workers to put the other half into personal accounts they’d invest among dozens of approved plans. Notice, by the way, what’s happened: even the “right” in these debates would compel workers to save, demonstrating the consensus for paternalism in making sure citizens plan for retirement. Indeed, in a glimpse of what entitlement debates will look like in the future, the old labels serve as poor guides to instincts and alliances. In June, for example, former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, a social liberal, will unveil a bold “thrift plan” developed jointly with the conservative National Taxpayers Union Foundation that would abolish the trust fund. The risk for well-intentioned privatizers, of course, is that the Social Democrats could be right; in their lust to replace Social Security entirely, we’ll end up so far from today’s communitarian ethic that even a minimum floor of pension protection will lose political support. Progressives. Fortunately, there’s an equitable and sensible middle ground, occupied by those like Ned Gramlich, the University of Michigan economist who chairs the Advisory Council, and Senators Kerrey and Simpson, who aim to increase national savings while preserving the essence of Social Security. The Kerrey-Simpson legislation, for example, would divert 2 percent of today’s payroll tax into mandatory worker savings accounts. To fund the “gap” they’d create, without having to raise payroll taxes, they’d impose limits on benefits and cost of living adjustments for better-off senior citizens, assuring today’s windfall winners a share in the solution. They’d also phase in a higher retirement age of 70 and index it after 2030 to rise with increases in lifespan, a step Bob Dole supported as far back as 1983.

For equity’s sake, they’d allow heavy laborers, who can’t be expected to work as long, say, as New Republic editors, to collect generous disability earlier. If Bob Ball’s stock market shuffle offers no solution, and the Chilean imitators’ looks too final (and impractical), the Progressive combination of mandatory private savings and fair benefit reductions is our best hope to preserve the original spirit of Social Security and still give the rising generation a fighting chance. Politically, this option has the virtue of being every zealot’s second choice. Yes, critics will say it’s a way station on the path to replacing Social Security. And over time, if the outlook isn’t stabilized by these reforms, that’s possible. But small, officially mandated accounts could instead have a multiplier effect as part of broader government efforts to persuade Americans to save more. A renaissance of thrift would make all these problems more manageable. With the Advisory Council’s imminent report, the curtain is just rising on this debate. Unless Ross Perot makes reform a battle cry in his latest quixotic effort, however, the bipartisan doctrine of Mutually Assured Demagoguery should keep Social Security a million miles from the campaign. “The only thing comforting about an unsustainable trend,” says Herb Stein, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute and former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, “is that it can’t go on forever.” Whether we start now, however, or wait until the solutions and the politics become even tougher, could spell the difference between phased-in fixes and generational showdown.

Anticipating little more than spending a few hours on his ladder stand, 63-year-old Don Hill probably really didn’t count on weighing-in an eight-point buck on the afternoon of November 19, 1993. Aloft and overlooking the acres of palmetto and scrub brush of northern Florida, listening to the wind whisper through the pines and feeling the autumn nip in the late-afternoon air, Hill could have watched a pair of jays on the wing, fox squirrels darting across a moss-laden limb or maybe a woodpecker rotating around the nearby tree tapping the bark for a meal. The forest rewards you one way or another, Hill would have thought.

His new .30/30 Winchester rifle resting across his upper legs, the retired Navy Chief Petty Officer from Orange Park, Fla., would likely have scanned the vast green-brown landscape of vegetation that surrounded him, perhaps suppressing a wide smile as his mind drifted to the realization of how fast his grandchildren were growing.

The Hill family will never know what Don’s thoughts were on that late afternoon, even as another hunter, a hunter of men, walked toward the ladder stand.

In the captive golden rays of the setting sun breaking through the pine boughs, the man appeared. He looked like any other hunter–dressed in camouflage, a few days’ growth of beard, carrying a shotgun–and his smile and greeting were not off-putting. “Hey, how are you? I’m real sorry to disturb you like this but I need some help toting a downed buck to my truck. Would you mind?”

According to Don Hill’s son Joe, his dad was not the kind of man to turn down anyone in need of assistance. It was a quality that proved fatal for the unsuspecting sportsman.

Arriving at Cobb Camp Grounds, located within Osceola National Forest, about 30 miles west of Jacksonville, later that night, Joe Hill intended to relax with a cup of hot coffee. Perhaps he could strike a bet with his father as to which one of them would bring down the largest buck before the next few days of their planned hunt was over. Upon arriving at Cobb, Joe found his dad’s small camper trailer to be set up but locked. The senior Hill should have been there. Maybe he had driven 15 miles into Lake City for supplies. But as hours passed, Joe became increasingly concerned. He went to a camp pay phone to call his mother back in Orange Park. She had not heard from her husband since earlier in the day. Joe told his mother not to be worried, even though by now he was. At sunrise, with still no sign of Don, Joe set out to find his father’s maroon-and-silver 1989 Chevrolet S-10 pickup. After searching several likely locations within Osceola Forest, Joe drove across the overpass of Interstate 10, the main east-west thoroughfare between Jacksonville and Tallahassee and beyond. He went just a short distance, passing Forest Road 257, and saw the familiar truck parked at the side of Dobson Grade Road. Exiting his own pickup and fighting growing tension and nervous fear, Joe called his father’s name as he moved at a steady pace down the firebreak extending toward a ladder stand supported by a large pine.

At the base of the tree, Don Hill lay on his right side, his newly purchased .30/30 extended across his body, the sling still wrapped around his right arm. Joe could not the obvious trauma that masked the familiar features of the man who raised him and whom he had loved all his life. Joe backed away and ran toward the road, his silent disbelief and non-acceptance now shattered by his own scream for “Help!”

Lt. Charlie Sharman of the Baker County Sheriffs Office was summoned to the scene by responding deputy sheriffs and state troopers who had been first to arrive and were charged with protecting the scene of a shooting incident involving a hunter. Lt. Sharman, off-duty but on-call, had been at home with his wife and children on Saturday morning when the call was made. Wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt and ankle-high boots, Sharman stepped from his white Blazer expecting to investigate another tragic incident of carelessness with a firearm. He hung his badge on a chain around his neck and walked toward the assembly of officers awaiting his arrival.

Baker County
Baker County

Charlie Sharman quickly recognized that this was no innocent accident, but the experienced homicide investigator found few clues to the seemingly motiveless crime. Who would outright murder a hunter in the woods? What possible motive could there be? Don Hill had been shot multiple times at close range with what appeared to be a shotgun, It was apparent that the killer had tried to clean up the evidence.

In coming days, Lt. Sharman and his team of investigators continued to scrutinize every possible lead and angle into the mysterious shooting death of Don Hill. But as days passed, there was apprehension growing in the minds of hunters in northeast Florida. They could not know that their fears would be compounded with the approaching Thanksgiving holiday.

On the day of Hill’s murder, Greg Wood, also of Orange Park, was on a golf course in Lake City with friends. Hill and Wood lived only four miles apart, yet they were not acquainted nor did they have any apparent connection other than residing in the same general area.

Tall and handsome, Wood lived with his girlfriend, Mary Marzola, and her daughter, Victoria. He worked for Sun Golf in Jacksonville doing every thing from sales to giving lessons. His passion was golf and, although he was 35, he still aspired to turn pro and play in the major tournaments. He shared his dream with his father, Don Wood, also an accomplished golfer.

Five days after Don Hill’s murder, November 24, Mary Marzola readied her daughter for school and left for work that Wednesday morning. She asked Greg Wood what he intended to do on his day off. Wood said he might go duck hunting in St. Augustine–he would leave a note for Mary if he did.

Mary found no note from Greg when she returned home. She looked in a closet and found his .308 rifle there and, knowing little about hunting, reasoned he must have decided to spend his day at something other than duck hunting. Mary never thought to check for Greg’s shotgun. She later learned from her mother, Ginger Havens, that Greg had called at about 3:30 in the afternoon to say that Victoria was coming to her grandmother’s house after school. He told Mary’s mother only that he was going out for a while.

When the hours drew long into the night, and Mary’s concern turned to worry, she began calling Greg’s family and friends. No one had heard from the aspiring golf pro. It was not at all like him to leave Mary uninformed of his whereabouts, Don Wood and an other son, Vigo, were as bewildered as Mary. Vigo knew his brother liked to hunt a specific area of Camp Blanding, the 63,000-acre Florida National Guard base located in southern Clay County. He suspected Greg may have gone there for an afternoon hunt on the state-owned property, which is open to sportsmen during hunting season.

Mary called the check-in gate at Camp Blanding and gave a description of Greg and his Mazda to check-station operator Mary Wainwright, a part-time employee of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. The following day, Thanksgiving, still with no word, Don and Vigo Wood began to search for Greg. By late afternoon there was no sign, but the two men were now at Camp Blanding and headed for the spot Vigo knew Greg favored. There they found Greg’s gray Mazda parked off Woodbury Road, a paved connecting roadway in the north-range area, but they were unable to locate the hunter, even in his favorite blind.

Don Wood went to the check-in station at State Road 16 and told the operator that he had found his son’s car. The father was soon joined by GFC Officer Steve Chance, a lawman with over 20 years experience in tracking and finding lost hunters. Don and Chance started back to the site where Vigo was waiting. Chance put in a call for a helicopter from the Jacksonville Sheriffs Office for assistance in locating a lost hunter. He feared Greg Wood may have been the victim of an accident–but in the back of his mind was the murder in the Osceola Forest only five days earlier. Officer Chance did not suspect he would be canceling the helicopter before it got off the ground.

When Don and Officer Chance returned, Vigo had found his brother. Greg Wood’s body was lying on a footpath a few hundred meters west of the hunting spot Vigo had recalled, A massive head wound by gunshot had ended his young and promising life.

By 1993, over the course of nine years as a homicide investigator with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, I had investigated and reported on many deaths. My partner, Lt. Tom Waugh, and I responded to them all–murders, suicides, accidental and industrial deaths, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)–anything other than death by natural causes. On Thanksgiving Day 1993, my family and I were 15 minutes from sitting down to dinner at my in-laws’ house. Just then my pager sounded–a sure sign of late-night leftovers for me, but little indication that I would be setting off on an investigation that would last four and a half years.

Leaving dinner and heading toward Camp Blanding in my Chevrolet Caprice, I called Tom on the car phone. He was a little bit ahead of me and would meet me there. It looked like a Signal 7–dead body, hunting accident. I wondered how he could be steering, talking on the car phone and maneuvering a turkey leg all at the same time. When I arrived, I was met by Steve Chance and Deputy Don Cox.

I had worked a half-dozen hunter-related deaths with Chance over the years. They all had been cases of accidental discharges because of carelessness or failure to recognize a target.

“Jimm, this is no accident,” Chance said to me. “The man was murdered.” Chance also informed me of a man murdered in Baker County five days earlier, under what appeared to be similar circumstances.

I introduced myself to Don and Vigo Wood before proceeding to the crime scene and gave Don a business card. Rather than confuse them with questions, I just left them alone to grieve in dignity.

At the immediate scene of the murder, Lt. Waugh was in the process of photographing Greg Wood and the surrounding area. I bent down beside the young victim and asked myself, “What happened here?” The man had been executed by a single shotgun wound to the back of his head. Questions surged through my mind: Did he know his killer? Was it a robbery? How much money would someone expect to get from a man in the woods? Am I looking at the onset of a serial murder by a sociopath hunting the ultimate game… a killer who hunts other hunters?

The answers would be the prelude to another death.

From my examination of the blood spatter on vegetation close to Wood’s body, I was able to form an opinion as to the proximity of the shooter and the angle of the weapon when fired. Everything made me suspect that Greg Wood was probably in prayer in the last moments of his life, as he sat upon a fallen tree across the path. Crime Scene Technicians from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrived on location as well as Division Chief Tim Collins from the State Attorney’s Office.

I left the scene and made an immediate telephone call to Lt. Charlie Sharman of Baker County. When Charlie told me details of the homicide scene in Osceola Forest, I knew that the killer of Hill and Wood was one and the same. A key feature was the manner in which the belts of the victims were cut by the murderer. Both men had items taken from their belts–Hill a knife and sheath; Wood a .357 revolver and holster. Additionally, both men’s wallets were missing, and Greg Wood’s Remington 12-gauge shotgun was also gone. Sharman and I determined that there was a uniqueness to the cut of the men’s belts. We chose to keep this factor to ourselves until the end–a decision that would eventually pay off.

Two murders of hunters in five days prompted aggressive measures on the part of former Baker County Sheriff Murray Richardson and Clay County Sheriff L. Scott Lancaster. It was decided that a task force would be formed immediately to spearhead a drive against the killer.

Detectives and special agents from both Sheriffs’ Offices, plus the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Game an4 Fresh Water Fish Commission, U.S. Forestry Service and Camp Blanding Military Police combined to saturate northeast Florida hunting areas, seeking witnesses and information. The task force came to be known as “Task Force Orion,” after the constellation Orion–”The Hunter.” Media throughout the U.S. picked up on the fact that two sportsmen had been murdered within days in northern Florida, and a nationwide chill fell on the hunting community.

Members of Task Force Orion would meet every Wednesday to review incoming leads and receive new assignments. A nationwide 800 telephone number was set up to receive tips and information. Within six months of the murders a reward totaling $45,500 was posted for the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the murders. Safari Club International put up nearly half the amount; law enforcement sources accounted for the remainder.

Hundreds of telephone calls came into the Clay County Sheriff’s Office on the 800 number. Each lead, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was followed. During the first year, Orion identified some promising leads, and there was particular optimism concerning a select few.

I was able to identify a number of similar murders across the United States and traveled to 11 states following up on these. I met with detectives and case agents, reviewed crime scene photos and autopsy protocols, interviewed suspects and arrested persons and would generally spend an average of three days in each jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the result in every, instance was negative–I was able to rule out possibilities by one means or another.

After the first year, Task Force Orion disbanded, as only occasional tips were still coming in. Lt. Sharman left Baker County and joined the patrol division of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. Lt. Chuck Brannon of Baker County assumed Charlie’s case and was always available, as were the other detectives. But it seemed like the bottom fell out, and as tips dwindled, fresher cases took precedence. Officer Steve Chance stuck with me throughout. I also continued to maintain close contact with Greg Wood’s father, assuring him each time we met that we would eventually find the killer of his son. Don Wood motivated me to a great extent with his confidence in me and the other fine officers and detectives. For the next three years I would dedicate some portion of each week to the murders, even as an increasing number of death investigations came along. I continued to travel and scrutinize other cases of hunters, fishermen and campers who had been killed, as well as to interview and reinterview.

In the summer of 1996, I received a telephone call from Detective Jon Perkins of the Glendale, Calif., Police Department’s homicide unit. Jon was a “scout” of high-profile murder investigations across the United States for Tim Johnson, creator of the television series Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and developer of a television program to be called Cold Case. He was interested in using the “Hunter Homicides” in the pilot program to sell the series. A unique feature of Cold Case was to tie the show into the Internet. Anyone could watch the program and go to a Web site (www. and contact the detective working the case to offer tips, clues and information. I thought it was a great concept that could provide us with new leads. Filming was completed later in the fall, and the show aired in April 1997. New tips immediately poured in. I was back on track, following leads at almost the same rate as I had three years earlier.

In August 1997, I was contacted by the Putnam County, Fla., Sheriffs Office, just south of Clay County, and told that its pawnshop detail had located a .357 revolver that the computer tagged as being sought in a Clay County murder investigation. When I heard the serial number I immediately knew which case it was and met with Detective Scott Simmons, who would prove to be one of the most professional and dedicated investigators I have ever worked with.

We went to the pawnshop in Palatka, Fla., which is about 35 miles south of Orange Park, and paid cash for Greg Wood’s .357. Detective Simmons and I spent days tracking the gun back through persons who had had it in their possession over the past three and a half years. The trail led me through 14 sets of hands–from Palatka to Kitty Hawk, N.C., and back to Florida again.

I was finally able to track the gun to an individual who I found had also sold Greg Wood’s Remington shotgun to a relative at the same time he sold the .357. His name was Jimmy Ray Beagle, and he was from Jacksonville.

After almost four years, I finally had a viable suspect in the murder of Hill and Wood. With the assistance of the Northeast Florida Investigative Support Unit, I was able to accumulate a considerable amount of information about Beagle, and utilizing an under cover informant, we learned enough to strongly suspect him of the murder.

Beagle, a 39-year-old security guard weighing more than 300 pounds, was also an accomplished liar. Each time my informant met with Beagle he wore a wire and the conversations were taped. Beagle never gave the same story–at least not without a twist.

I did a background check of Beagle and considered what made him tick, and I personally conducted three interviews with him, in February and March of this year. I attempted to make him believe I had no interest in this old case, other than as a pretty theft. If he only knew how much I wanted to bring the “Hunter Homicides” to a close!

In conjunction with Lt. Derry Dedmon of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, one of the most experienced interrogators and polygraph operators in North Florida, I began to formulate a strategy that I thought would result in Beagle confessing to the murders. I then met with Special Agents Dale Hinman and Wayne Porter of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Violent Crime Information System (VICIS). I’ve worked with both Dale and Wayne for many years and they are tops in providing criminal personality profiles and in interview and interrogation techniques.

I laid out my plan to the profilers. Because Beagle repeatedly claimed to have recently “found religion” which I believed to be convenient to him only under certain circumstances–I decided–I would conduct the crucial interview wearing ersatz clerical garb (a black sport coat and a white collarless shirt, buttoned at the top). Expecting only that I would take him to my office to clear up some inconsistencies in his prior statements, Beagle would be confused and dumb-founded when I directed him to another office in which every graph, photograph and piece of paper generated in the “Hunter Homicides” was on display. I figured he would react in my favor because, until this point, he had been under the impression I had no real interest in the case and was going through the motions just trying to backtrack the guns. Dale and Wayne were in full agreement with the plan and when I laid it out for my boss, Capt. Allen Trew, he simply said, “Let’s do it.”

On March 24, 1998, Beagle was scheduled to come to my office at one o’clock. He arrived 35 minutes early–which told me he had prepped himself for more lying.

The other officers and I saw no firearms on Beagle, although as a security guard he did have a valid concealed. weapons permit and a lawful right to carry one. And because Beagle had presented himself for a voluntary interview and was not in custody, we had no justification to pat him down. In fact, I suspected that if we did so he would never confess because I had concluded that Beagle was the epitome of a “wannabe cop.” He would have considered the act humiliating and would have likely walked out and never confessed.

When I brought Beagle into the “staged room,” the expression on his face was memorable. Over the course of the next hour and 45 minutes Beagle did, in fact, confess to the murder and robber3, of Don Hill in Osceola State Forest and of “stumbling” upon the body of Greg Wood in Camp Blanding five days later and stealing his guns.

I decided I would have Derry Dedmon come in to the interview room to fine-rune some information and then turn it back over to me. Beagle agreed (he had already been given his Miranda rights) and continued to talk. Then he asked to use the bathroom. As I consulted with Capt. Trew and Intelligence Officer Lee Harris, Beagle was directed to the restroom across the hall from my office. After a few minutes, I asked where Beagle was and was told he was still in the bathroom.

Knocking, I asked Beagle to open the door, but he declined to do so. I asked him again, and again. All told. I asked him to open the door four times. But even after telling him I would be forced to open the door by kicking it in, Beagle did not comply.

We had to act quickly. The fourth kick forced the door inward, my momentum carrying me onto the threshold. I found myself staring down the barrel of a .357 revolver Beagle was holding to my face in a combat stance. Until then I had never known that anyone even–a 300-pounder–could conceal something the size of a small culvert pipe on their person.

I said, almost to myself, “Man, I don’t need this [stuff]!” I told Beagle to relax and lower the gun. Meanwhile Harris and Dedmon were scrambling for protective vests and evacuating our secretary, Sherry Futch. As I talked to Beagle in a reassuring voice, I jerked back from the threshold around the corner and Lee slid me a vest. I half-whispered orders to call out the Hostage Negotiation Team and SWAT.

Lt. Harris, a negotiations supervisor, took over the dialogue with Beagle, and I left the building to meet the support units. Over the next nine hours Beagle “fine-rimed” the circumstances of the murders of both Hill and Woods to negotiators, claiming his motive was “pure and simple robbery.” He also sent notes under the door giving us written confessions to the murders and other crimes (he described in exact detail how he had cut the belts).

Eventually, Sheriff Lancaster agreed with his negotiators that Beagle had no intention of coming out. He authorized the use of chemical gas.

Beagle endured the gas for nearly 10 minutes before firing through the door at SWAT members. Officers returned fire as Beagle continued to shoot. An autopsy determined that Beagle died as the result of a self-inflicted contact wound to the chest by a .357 bullet. Beagle gained a total of $95 in the “Hunter Homicide” robberies–that’s $20 in cash plus what he got for the guns he sold. But on March 24, 1998, the families of hunters Don Hill and Greg Wood gained closure, and the hunters of north Florida regained their right to pursue their sport without fear of themselves being hunted.

Security is in the eye of the beholder – the eye of a closed circuit television camera, that is.

Yet contrary to popular belief, CCTV does not combat crime.

“People equate CCTV cameras with security, but cameras don’t protect people,” said Dick Hudak, director of security for ITT Sheraton Corp. “[Surveillance cameras] are really an [identification] and document tool for establishing the time a crime occurred to help the authorities with an investigation.”

depressinghotelHudak said in addition to installing CCTV, hotels need to hire on-premise security officers whenever possible; provide high-quality lighting in remote areas, such as parking lots and garages; install peripheral access controls, such as electronic door locks; post proper signage; and provide escorts for better security.

“We support CCTV in certain designs, yet we don’t buy systems with all the bells and whistles” Hudak said. “We take a limited approach to monitor access control.”

Hudak said parking lots and garages are two areas that see the most crime on a property, yet he does not believe in installing CCTV in those areas.

Remote security

“When you place a camera on a roof to look at a parking lot, you need to have zoom and record capabilities,” he said. “This will quadruple the cost of the camera, especially since you need to protect it from the elements, like rain and snow. In reality, it’s difficult to see any activity in those areas, especially in inclement weather.”

Not all members of ITT Sheraton’s Security Council share Hudak’s views on avoiding exterior CCTV coverage – some feel it is worth the investment, he said. What they all agree on is that CCTV should be installed to cover the perimeter of the hotel – entrances, exits and loading dock. Likewise, interior coverage should monitor elevator lobbies, the main lobby, front desk area, cash-handling room and safety deposit box area. Cameras do not belong on guestroom floors, he said.

ITT Sheraton averages 20 to 25 cameras per property, and works primarily with CCTV providers Sensormatic, Boca Raton, Fla., and Navco, Anaheim, Calif.

ITT Sheraton is not alone in using surveillance equipment on its properties. Previously, CCTV was thought of as an expensive security measure afforded only by larger hotels and gaming properties. Recent advances in surveillance technology, however, have lowered its cost, and have enabled CCTV to carve a niche in the economy segment as well – especially at properties with exterior corridors and whose front-desk managers may be working solo throughout the night. The lack of personnel and the easy accessibility to guestrooms have made this segment a prime target for crime.

Candid cameras

Economy brand Signature Inns began installing CCTV in all its properties over the past two to three years.

Signature Inns works exclusively with ADT Securities to install security systems from Philips Professional Products in Atlanta. Four to six cameras per property are used at Signature Inns, which includes cameras, two monitors, switching equipment (which changes pictures every five to seven seconds) and a time lapse recorder.

“We believe in being proactive,” said Jim Getchell, Signature’s director of purchasing. “Ten years ago, if a guest was to see surveillance cameras on a property, he or she would immediately think: ‘This is a dangerous place to stay.’ Now the presence of security cameras gives guests an added level of comfort.”

Getchell said since the CCTV cameras were installed, Signature Inns has seen virtually no crime at its properties systemwide. To supplement its security efforts, the company has installed electronic locks by Ilco Unican on all guestroom doors and at all entrances and exits.

“We’ve got a camera at the front desk to see who’s coming and going,” he said. “The lobby entrance is open from 6 a.m. to 12 midnight. After that, the doors are electronically locked. To gain access, the front-desk clerk will look to the security monitor to see who wants to enter, and then will release the door from behind the front desk.”

Getchell said the monitoring device also has audio capability, so the front-desk clerk can talk with the person who wants access. All doors on the property sport a decal which states the property is under security surveillance.

“CCTV is definitely a deterrent to anyone on the property who may want to engage in criminal activity” Getchell said. “Typically, a criminal would rather go down the street to a property that’s not using surveillance equipment.”

Victor Glover, v.p. of safety and security for Motel 6, agreed with Getchell.

“The criminal element has one of best grapevines in world,” Glover said. “A criminal would prefer to go somewhere else to eliminate the risk of being identified.”

Working with Sensormatic, Motel 6 is in the process of installing CCTV in all 760 properties throughout the United States. Glover said he anticipates the installation to be complete by the end of 1999.

Sensormatic offers a wide range of surveillance equipment and functionality, including:

* fixed cameras (color or black-and-white);

* SpeedDomes (fast-moving cameras with 360-degree rotation and programmable targets and patterns);

* video management (control up to 96 cameras with full matrix switching capabilities);

* multiplexers (view and record up to 16 cameras simultaneously – all with full screen detail and the ability to view one camera as fullscreen, picture-in-picture); and

* quads (record up to eight cam- eras with the ability to view four at one time).

“All of the new Motel 6 prototypes are being built with interior corridors,” Glover said. ‘This will give our guests an added sense of security and will also help with our energy-management efforts.”

To augment the Motel 6 security program, Glover said all new prototype properties will be equipped with VingCard electronic guestroom locks. To help protect Motel 6 employees working the late shift, the properties are built with a drive-up check-in window so the lobby can be kept locked.

Motel 6 chose the Sensormatic system because it is upgradeable, Glover said. The brand has also used the Philips Observation System in the past.

The central political fact about abortion in America is that there’s a lot of it. While America’s annual abortion count has fallen to 1.3 million in the late ’90s, it averaged 1.5 million a year between 1973 and 1996, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood. That’s more than 34 million abortions. It’s worth noting that the National Right to Life Organization does not contest these figures. Because, if we cast the net as widely as we can–from women who were pushing 40 in the early ’70s to girls who are still teenagers today–only about 90 million women have passed through any part of childbearing age since Roe v. Wade. Even accounting for those who have had multiple abortions, that means close to half of American young women are using abortion–43 percent by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

aboIn the polls, Americans profess ambivalence about abortion, openly supporting it only for “serious” reasons: for the health of the mother by 84 percent to twelve percent, for grave birth defects by 75 to 21, for rape by 77 to 19. They claim to oppose it for “trivial” reasons–for women who say they can’t afford another baby by 42 to 53, for those who don’t want another baby by 40 to 55, for those trying to avoid a shotgun wedding by 40 to 55. In other words, Americans claim not to back “lifestyle” abortions.

Yet the vast majority of abortions today are for reasons of lifestyle. Only about 14,000 women per year get abortions because of rape, incest, or to save their own lives. Of the other 1,286,000, three-fourths say a baby would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities; two-thirds say they cannot afford a child; one-half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their male partner, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Lifestyle always overpowers traditional morality in the war within the Western conscience, and nowhere more obviously than when abortions reach the level of pro-life parody, as they do more commonly than most abortion rights advocates will admit. The British gynecologist P. Greenhalgh writes of a rich mother of three who came to her for an abortion. She wanted a fourth child but not just yet, since the family had already reserved a ski vacation months down the line. Many ob-gyn specialists have stories like this, and, when one hears them, it’s easy to see why women feel so guilty about owning up to the pedestrian nature of their reasons.

But then most people don’t really consider lifestyle pedestrian, especially not their own. In a society organized around a succession of acquisitions and thrills, questions of lifestyle determine one’s identity, one’s rank in society, one’s allegiances, one’s loves and hates. It’s not a matter of monolithic, time-honored religion versus itty-bitty, flighty lifestyle. It’s religion–marginal vestige, subculture, private matter–versus lifestyle–the engine, the symbol, the central organizing principle of the most powerful nation in the history of mankind. The failure of the Southern Baptist Convention’s call for a boycott of Disney gives you an indication of which worldview wins when they clash head-on.

Indeed, lifestyle as a values system grows steadily more powerful as capitalism grows steadily more beneficent. In a socially stratified era antedating mass contraception, an unwanted pregnancy generally meant you’d get stuck in a cramped, limited village existence with the first man you fell in love with, which is probably what would have happened anyway. Today, it still means getting stuck in a cramped, limited existence–but that’s decidedly not what would have happened anyway. What one loses out on is a vastly expanded roster of life choices: education, travel, career advancement, class advancement, money, fine dining, entertainment, and sports, plus a recreational-sex career that can run at full-throttle (if that’s what you want) for 30 years or more.

Republicans, at least the economic conservatives among them, are in a weak position to argue that Americans should throw all of this away. For in no other realm do they argue that the quest for lifestyle is a frivolous thing. The pro-choice position has much in common with their own. It is a market doctrine run amok in the nonmarket world. The underlying Republican defense of the American tendency to valorize, to monetize, to consumerize everything–from happiness to love to pride–has always been that the nature of those eternal pleasures is not altered a whit by having a dollar value attached to them. That ski vacation that the mother of three is aborting her child for might be a repository of all the happiness or love or pride she has.

Even where Americans claim to disapprove most strongly of abortion, they booby-trap their disapproval so that it never results in the actual curtailment of abortion rights. Take the crown jewel of Republican focus-group testing: partial-birth abortion. Following a barrage of graphic advertising and congressional legislation aimed at eliminating the procedure, 73 percent told pollsters they favored outlawing it. But, of those, 60 percent wanted an exception made for the health of the mother. And, while childbirth still has its dangers, it is so safe–with maternal death rates at a fraction of a percentage point–that the health-of-the-mother business is almost surely a cover for something else. Americans want to register their moral disapproval and keep the procedure available at the same time.

Pro-life Republicans themselves have grown so comfortable with abortion as a last resort that they can’t even keep their lines straight. Take Dan Quayle’s remark in the 1992 campaign that, if his daughter got pregnant, he’d “support her in whatever decision she’d make” on whether to abort. (Would he “support her” in anything else he claims to think is murder?) Or take Barbara Bush’s calling abortion a “personal choice.” (Had she and her ostensibly pro-life husband crossed swords in a real abort-or-not argument over the dinner table, who do you think would have prevailed?) This is a pro-life stance that comes from debate prepping, not conviction, let alone traditional morality. Which is to say that, when push comes to shove, when it’s your daughter who’s stuck marrying the psychopath or skipping Yale to take up single motherhood in your retirement home in St. Bart’s, it’s not a pro-life stance at all. It’s idle moralism, freeloading off a pro-choice culture.

The story of Bob Barr, the thrice-married pro-life Georgia congressman who launched the impeachment effort against President Clinton, tells us even more about what pro-life sentiment means in the face of middle-class necessity. Barr’s second wife, Gail, says in an affidavit that, in 1983, the couple found themselves in a situation straight out of a Clinton town meeting: saddled with two toddlers, Barr’s law practice failing, no health insurance, she 38 years old, he in the middle of an extramarital affair and soon to remarry. When Gail got pregnant, Barr drove her to the abortion clinic and paid for the procedure. Barr’s supporters insist he wasn’t pro-life back then. They should realize that that goes without saying.

Abortion turns out to be an indispensable part of the normal middle-American toolkit. If Republicans like Governor Bush are giving up on the issue, it’s because they’ve figured out that, even if Republicans win on abortion, they lose. The most they could hope to achieve is to shake middle-class life to its foundations in the name of values that, at the end of the day, neither they nor the middle class actually holds.

Americans’ claims to be conflicted about abortion are a handy self-deception of the sort all nations engage in when a treasured self-image comes in conflict with a treasured reality. (Think of Britain, which persists in thinking the stiff upper lip central to its national character, even after a royal funeral that showed it to be the most emotional of advanced nations.) We should distrust the pro-life spin that Americans are more conflicted over abortion than citizens of other Western countries. They’re not. What they exhibit is a rock-solid, European-style support for abortion, with American moral posturing plastered on top. The Bauer-Buchanan wing of the Republican Party would court voters by promising to expose them as hypocrites. Lots of luck.

Perhaps what Governor Jeb Bush has come to realize is that bringing down abortion would also bring down many of the implicit rules that govern American life. The result would be more than just a society with fewer abortions. It would be a society that actually was based on traditional moral values. That’s a society that none of us would recognize and even many who call themselves pro-life would find intolerable.