The Failure of Antigovernment Conservatism

Visiting the site of the Minneapolis bridge collapse on Saturday, President Bush used the opportunity to get in a standard-issue Republican dig on government -- you know, the entity in charge of things like making sure bridges are safe. "There's a lot of paperwork involved with government," he said, promising to "cut through that paperwork, and to see if we can't get this bridge rebuilt in a way that not only expedites the flow of traffic, but in a way that can stand the test of time."

But don't expect too much. "I make no promises on the timetable," the president then said, bringing down the mood a bit. He did, though, go on to say that the tragedy might lead to something positive. A pledge from his administration to push for greater investment in infrastructure, perhaps? Or a promise to repair crumbling roads, bridges, and utilities? Fat chance.

"Out of these tragedies can come a better life," he said. "And I, having visited with the people here, believe that not only are they committed to a better life, not only are they committed to turning something ugly into something good, but it's going to happen."

So our government may not do much beyond rebuilding this particular bridge, but President Bush is relieved to find that the people directly affected by this tragedy are "committed to a better life." Perhaps he should have also encouraged them to eat more fruits and vegetables.

When Bush glides into the scene of a tragedy, floating in the molasses-thick bubble of banality that surrounds him at all times, the results can be painful to watch. But the tone-deafness of Bush's response to the bridge collapse offers yet another illustration of how far the national debate has moved away from the Republicans. As hard as it may be for many progressives to accept it, scarred as they are by years of GOP abuse and the tepid, apologetic stance of their own allies, the time has finally come for them to defend, without reservation, the idea of a vigorous, engaged government. They can finally say, without fear of disastrous political consequences, that sometimes government is not the problem, it's the solution.

Back in Washington, last week saw the emergence of another golden opportunity for Democrats to move the debate on the role of government forward. Both houses of Congress passed an increase in the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which currently provides health insurance to 6.6 million children, millions less than are actually eligible. President Bush, his compassion flag flying, has threatened to veto the bill. Problem is, the program actually works as it was intended, thereby inculcating citizens with the crazy idea that providing health insurance through the government is a good idea.

There are occasions in politics when your opponents walk up to you and say, "We're taking a stand that is terribly unpopular with the public. Not only that, the issue highlights one of the most basic differences between us and you, offering you the opportunity to make truly fundamental arguments that will not only serve you well today but help you win elections for years to come. Now what are you going to do about it?"

Well, what are the Democrats going to do about it?

If they were smart, Democrats would drop everything for the next month and talk about nothing but SCHIP. Get the House and Senate versions of the bill reconciled, get it to President Bush, and force him to follow through on his veto threat. Let Republicans continue to argue that they're afraid increasing funding will lead to more children having health coverage (and no, that isn't a caricature -- that's actually what they're saying). "If Congress continues to insist upon expanding health care through the SCHIP program," said President Bush, "I'll veto the bill." Nine of the 10 Republicans running for president oppose expanding SCHIP, lest children get coverage through the government and thereby become, in Rudy Giuliani's words, "wards of the state" (the exception is Tommy Thompson, who said he favors expanding the program, just not the way this bill does it). Duncan Hunter complained, "This is socialized medicine. It's going to go to families that make $60,000 a year. Those aren't poor children."

Why the focus on SCHIP? First, because this is an issue on which the public's opinions couldn't be clearer. In May, a CNN poll asked respondents, "Do you think the government should provide a national health insurance program for all children under the age of 18, even if this would require higher taxes?" Seventy-three percent said yes. A CBS/New York Times poll in April found that 84 percent said SCHIP should be expanded to cover all uninsured children. That's about as close to a national consensus as you ever find.

And the Democratic talking points couldn't be simpler: Democrats want to give health coverage to kids, and Republicans want kids to go without health coverage.

The second reason the Democrats should talk about SCHIP every time they get within earshot of a reporter is that this is a rare issue on which the Republican argument is abstract and dry, while the Democratic argument is concrete and lends itself easily to effective emotional appeals. A junior high school debater could rip apart the Republican candidates and their pathetically outdated attacks on "socialized medicine." Try this: "Mayor Giuliani, let me tell you about Betsy Wilson. She's 10, and her parents both work hard -- mom is a waitress, dad is trying to build a carpentry business. But like millions of Americans, they can't afford health coverage, so Betsy doesn't get the doctor visits she needs. Now we want to give the Wilsons the opportunity to get health coverage for Betsy, so she can stay healthy and they won't be bankrupted if she gets sick again. But you say no. Did I mention that Betsy had a rare form of cancer when she was 6? She's in remission now, thank heavens, but the Wilsons worry every day that it could come back. And those HMOs you like so much won't cover her because they think it might cut into their profits. So answer me this question, Mayor Giuliani: How can you look at Betsy and say, sorry, too bad -- you can't have health coverage? What kind of a person says that to a child?"

The Republican reply will, of necessity, be abstract -- talk of the glories of the free market and the hope that with the right mix of tax incentives, families like the Wilsons might be encouraged to get a health savings account, with which they would "own their own health insurance." And they'll lose.

The third reason Democrats should make SCHIP the issue of the month is that it connects so well with issues like infrastructure maintenance. It highlights the fundamental divide between the right and the left: Progressives believe we're all in it together, while conservatives say we're all on our own and we're all out for ourselves. Progressives think government has to do the things markets can't do -- and when it does them, it ought to do them well. Conservatives are so blinded by their antigovernment ideology that when they get hold of government they turn it into a corroded mess of cronyism, corruption, and incompetence, a dilapidated whorehouse where the plumbing doesn't work, the paint is peeling off the walls, and everything is for sale.

For the last seven years we've seen what happens when people who have nothing but contempt for government are given its reins. Amidst all the misery that has resulted is the greatest political opportunity Democrats have had in decades. Yes, the public can't stand George W. Bush. But the discontent goes far deeper. Democrats can either address that discontent and explain its true sources, or wait for their opponents to find a way to blame it all on them.

Many of us believe that this is a defining moment in the ongoing ideological struggle between conservatism and progressivism. But that moment will be squandered unless those with access to the public make clear exactly what these debates are about. Issues like SCHIP and maintaining our infrastructure get to the differences that should define our politics. But they only do so if the most important players in the debate make the decision to talk about them that way.

This is an opportunity not just to define Bush, or the Republicans in Congress, or the GOP presidential candidates, but to define conservatism itself. It's time for prominent Democrats, the ones who have the power to get on the evening news, to talk in explicit terms about the consequences of the conservative antigovernment philosophy and what it says about the people who advocate it. Conservatives are the people who degrade government to the point that it cannot effectively maintain our roads and bridges. Conservatives are the people who turn over our defense budget to corrupt contractors who steal the money that ought to go to our troops. Conservatives are the people who won't let poor kids have health insurance.

But will we see Democrats making those arguments? Andrew Sullivan recently argued that Hillary Clinton suffers from "political post-traumatic stress disorder," that she "has internalized to her bones the 1990s' sense that conservatism is ascendant, that what she really believes is unpopular, that the Republicans have structural, latent power of having a majority of Americans on their side." Putting aside the question of whether this is true of Clinton, it certainly is an accurate description of more than a few prominent Democrats. There is a whole generation of Democrats -- politicians, congressional staff, political consultants, and party functionaries -- who either started their careers or matured during the Clinton years, when the dominant Democratic strategy was one of triangulation, long before it was given that name. They spent their time worrying not about how to contrast themselves with Republicans, but how to contrast themselves with other Democrats.

But 2007 is not 1994, and there is no political benefit to proclaiming one's opposition to big government. Arguing for the progressive vision of government's appropriate role will not lead inexorably to Republican victories -- just the opposite. A time like 1994 may come again one day, but this is not that time. If Democrats don't make the case for government now, when the public is more ready to hear it than they have been in decades, they will continue to find themselves on the defensive.

There's a good chance that before his presidency comes to its long-awaited end, George W. Bush will stand at the site of another tragedy, another failure of his administration and his ideology, and offer another string of anti-government clichés dripping with unintended irony. The fact that he did so last weekend and was not greeted with ridicule and contempt has nothing to do with the power of his ideas or his deft public relations. It is up to his opponents, at long last, to stop acting ashamed of what they believe and stand up for government. When they do, they'll find the public is already there waiting for them.

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