Distributed February 1996
Copyright ©1996 by James A. Morone
What happened? That's easy. Just turn to the biggest story of the year: the weather. When the rivers flood, all the tough talk about getting the federal government out of our lives suddenly dries up. Even sturdy conservative governors start demanding immediate disaster relief from Washington.
What the heavy snows and rising waters are telling us is that the conventional Republican wisdom is way off. Sure, the abstract rhetoric sounds good. Ask people whether the federal government has too much power and the answer is a no-brainer: Of course it does. Should we roll it back? Of course we should.
The $12 trillion question is, why is it so hard to do? Well, at first that looks like still another no-brainer. We all know the usual suspects: Politicians who talk tough but shamelessly pander to the public; the public which refuses to accept the tough choices that will save them; and the evil empire - Washington, D.C. - which is stuck in its own self-interested gridlock, crushing every reform that wanders naively inside the beltway. The problem with all these familiar villains is that none of them is to blame.
So who is stymieing the young Republicans? Maybe it's time to reexamine the universal assumption. Is there too much government in America? Let's walk on the wild side and try out a hopelessly liberal idea. Maybe the federal government is so hard to cut back because, when it comes down to the specifics, people actually like the things the federal government does.
After all, we've been here before. Newt Gingrich and his troops are running into the same stubborn support for the same annoying programs that gave Ronald Reagan and his troops so much trouble: clean air, clean water, Medicare, Social Security, the space program, better schools, public safety.
As long as we're indulging in heretical liberal thoughts, let's go all the way. Maybe the people and their politicians are not a sorry bunch of selfish pander bears (as presidential candidate Paul Tsongas used to put it). Maybe these are good programs that make America a better, stronger place.
Across the industrial world, a whole lot of trial and error is producing a simple truth. Flourishing societies need strong market economies and strong governments. The two work together - governments regulate the markets and help citizens negotiate the harsher aspects of life (and that means protection from floods or unemployment or unsafe hamburgers).
The Soviets tried to go it without effective markets and produced disaster. Operating without effective government is a simple recipe for the opposite disaster. The difficult governance question is how to get politics and markets to work together, smoothly and effectively. When push actually comes to shove, maybe the public understands that.
If so, the Republican revolutionaries have good reason to be grumpy. It's not just that their laissez-faire fancies face resistance. It's the dawning realization that they've built a revolution on false premises.