When it comes to the government, do you like more of it, or less of it? When it comes to deciding any election, that’s about it. Do we need more government to fix things, or are we in a fix because government has tried its hand at too many things?
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Invariably, that’s what electoral contests come down to -- not the economy, stupid. None of this means the economy doesn’t play a role. Of course it does. But the government role in that economy -- good or bad -- plays a bigger role. And this role swings like a pendulum, depending on the moment, or the economic cycle.
Right about now, for example, government isn’t faring too well in polls. From an unresponsive Veterans Affairs Administration to a hiccuping health-care law start, even some diehard big government advocates are having pause; and some are having second thoughts altogether on when some government becomes too much government. That’s why pollsters think Republicans will make considerable gains this mid-term election year. The pendulum has swung back to them -- it’s swung back to less government, not more government. There’s a countrywide and citizen-wide reassessment over whether government has gone too far, and generally taken on too much.
Perhaps had the health-care rollout gone smoother, and the economic boon from massive federal stimulus been more pronounced, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion right now. But it’s a predictable discussion, because historically, this is a predictable pattern. When Barack Obama was first running for the Presidency, he championed a cause that pretty much centered on the fat cats getting richer and everyone else falling behind. It was time to step in and even the playing field, and Washington would help level that playing field.
It was not all that different from Franklin Roosevelt’s message back in 1932. Years of laissez faire Republican free market ways had hurt too many Americans to count. The all-consuming Depression that followed paved the way for the big government initiatives that would invariably follow as well. Today, FDR’s New Deal serves as a reminder of the ultimate liberal economic antidote to hard times – more government.
But history also proves government intervention has its limits, and taken to extremes, often tests voters’ patience. Fairly or not, Jimmy Carter’s presidency was defined as one government misstep after another, leading to one disaster after another. It was the failure of that system-trusting administration that helped usher in an entirely different administration. Ronald Reagan pounded the notion that government wasn’t only a poor solution to our problems, government was the problem. Reagan’s unbridled dismantling of a variety of government programs, including the unprecedented firing of air traffic controllers, was meant to unshackle Americans from a burdensome and dictatorial Washington.
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By dramatically cutting taxes as well, Reagan’s railing against even funding government to the degree we had, set off an economic boom the likes of which this country had never seen. That boom carried over to his Vice President George Bush, who helped squeeze another four years of Republican rule out of it – helped in large part by a Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis, who was a big fan of more government to rectify what he called “America’s two-tiered society.”
Back in 1988, it didn’t look that bad, though, so too bad for Gov. Dukakis. But by 1992, these bread and butter economic issues once again became pressing, and an unusually stubborn recession didn’t help matters any. Democrats bemoaned a government that had failed its people, and its mission. Oddly, they argued Reagan had cut government to the bone, when, in fact, he had only slowed its growth. In terms of federal workers and the sheer size of the bureaucracy, government was actually larger than when Reagan had first taken office to when George Bush was seeking re-election.
But that infamous pendulum had swung back to favoring more government now. Bill Clinton triumphed in what would be a delicate balance between traditional liberalism and what the former Arkansas governor called “pragmatic conservatism.”
In each of these years, the theme came back to whether government would be deemed the solution or the problem. When it’s voted the solution, Democrats typically triumph. When it’s not, Republicans do. Right about now, government is more a dirty word than a positive one, so for now, advantage to the Grand Old Party.
Americans are clearly of mixed minds when it comes to the long-term role of government -- when they’re down and out, they want more of it. But what’s interesting this year is that many remain down and out, yet they want nothing to do with it. That’s what makes what’s going on now so unique. It’s as if government itself is being judged in an entirely new and different way -- not just whether it can do the things to help folks, but whether it’s capable to doing anything to help folks. The cynicism is high. The questioning intense. It really is Republicans’ argument to lose.
Then again, Republicans have shown a remarkable knack for grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. And it’s always been pinned on the notion government is broken. Right now, it is. But that’s just because right now, Americans are angry because it hasn’t done the job they thought it would and could. They could just as easily turn their anger on the party that promised it would do just that…but ultimately did not.
Don’t believe me. Believe…history.