It has been widely noted that congressional Republicans have failed to live up to their billing as the party of small government, especially since George W. Bush became president. There are exceptions, to be sure, but the allure of spending other people’s money has proved so great that voters have not gotten the spending restraint they expected when they elected a Republican Congress in 1994. About all that Republicans can say in defense of this record is that Democrats have been worse.
Yet what is less widely noted is that the Democrats, in opposition, have presented themselves to a large extent as an antigovernment party. One of their main themes has been that the Bush administration is “incompetent”–that, at least for now, the government can’t do anything right. As we noted in September, former Enron adviser Paul Krugman blamed the allegedly poor response to Hurricane Katrina on Ronald Reagan’s “ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good.”
This attitude betrays a fundamental lack of faith in government. Its implication is that the institutions of government are too frail to withstand the pressures of American democratic politics. It is also a remarkably self-serving position. Liberal Democrats take credit for creating an enormous government, which, according to them, doesn’t work–but would work just fine if only the populace were smart enough to elect liberal Democrats.
In sum: Republicans favor small government but embrace big government when they have the power to control it. Democrats favor big government but insist that it can work only when they have the power to control it. Politicians in both parties, then, seem to see government as a means to the same end: their own political power. Little wonder that voters are suspicious of government.
That seems about right. I think many Americans were intrigued, in 1994, by the possibility that the Contract with America might just prove to be the tonic long needed in national government. Unfortunately, as with most revolutions, this one too reversed to Establishmentarian form once its enumerated objectives were met.
Given the choice between bad ideas and no ideas, is it any wonder voters and citizens are tuning out?
[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]