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The Era Of _____ Government

This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer. An earlier version appeared in The Washington Post.

Looking at the pre-Katrina political theory floating out there with the rest of the storm's flotsam and jetsam, it's clear that when it comes to the role of the government -- big, federal, blow-the-wad government complete with presidential bells and whistles -- both political parties now face what earnest, horn-rimmed students used to call "internal contradictions."

Here's the nut of those contradictions: Recently, Democrats have been talking like the party of small government even though they really believe in the functions and mission of big government. Meanwhile, Republicans, who have long professed not to believe in many of the missions and functions of big government, have been expanding the government substantially.

In his prime time address to the nation on Thursday, President Bush tried to wire together both these tangled strains of American political thought into a single life raft. On the one hand, he said, "The system, at every level of government, was not well coordinated and was overwhelmed" while, on the other hand, promising to lead "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen." So the government -- the very same government that so many Republicans since Ronald Reagan have mocked and denigrated, and which, Bush says, bungled Katrina -- became in a single speech both the solution and the problem.

If Hurricane Katrina revealed fatal, knowable and manmade flaws in New Orleans' basic geography, it has done much the same for Americans' collective view of government's basic mission along with its size, scope and finances. And if Katrina forced open gushing cracks in the city's levees, it has also pried open oozing fissures in the political parties' governing philosophies, or at least how the parties peddle those philosophies.

In the post-Clinton era, Democrats have acted like Taft Republicans of the 1950s, fighting for balanced budgets at home and against active idealism abroad, and combining it all with an allergy to charisma that the incurably dull Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft would have envied. Post-Clinton Republicans have acted like a caricature of 1970s Democrats -- fiscally reckless, hooked on pork, big spending and cronyism, and committed to idealistic do-goodism abroad.

In the end, both the parties and the voters are responsible for an affliction the country now suffers: We seem to feel we have a right to much more from government than we care to pay for; this essentially moral failing has a name in the economic world -- it's called a deficit.

The massive spending necessary to deal with Katrina will of course exacerbate this deficit, fiscal and moral. More fundamentally, Katrina, combined with 9/11, seems to have rekindled the notion that government's basic mission is to protect stuff -- people, property, commerce and daily life. If the politicians come to believe (through polling) that Americans don't believe government is doing enough to protect them, they will throw money and more crisis czars at the problem. They've already started. It will be expensive and it will not be pay as you go.

How are partisan theoreticians processing this?

On the liberal side, an exemplary manifesto is E. J. Dionne Jr.'s recent column in The Washington Post that declared flatly, "The Bush Era is over." Liberal blogs and Web sites like ran this as a banner headline.

But it's somewhat hard to see why the Bush era is dead even if he's in some deep and dirty water. He's got three years left and solid GOP majorities in Congress. Is there something larger afoot? Dionne thinks so. "The source of Bush's political success was his claim that he could protect Americans," he wrote. "Leadership, strength and security were Bush's calling cards. Over the past two weeks, they were lost in the surging waters of New Orleans." At least the Democrats hope so.

Democrats still have the problem of answering this: Give us a hint of what the Democratic era is, please. You'll recall this was a problem in November of 2000 and 2004.

Speaking of the ends of eras, 10 years ago in January, William Jefferson Clinton declared in his State of the Union Address, "The era of big government is over." That was a big headline in those days, coming from a Democrat. He was promptly reelected and nearly impeached during a feckless second term that didn't do much big or small. Except cut the deficits.

Since losing the White House, the Democrats have complained wildly about a war that most of them voted for, about deficits caused by tax cuts passed with many of their votes and about overspending, including pork that they probably would have wanted more of. Until New Orleans, they hadn't spent much wind talking about the classic mission of 20th-century big government -- fighting poverty. So are the Democrats now the party of small government? Well, not really.

David Wessel, in a terrific piece in the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 8, made his own declaration: "The era of small government is over. Sept. 11 challenged it. Katrina killed it." He added: "Despite a conservative Republican president with a Republican majority in the Congress, small government has been more principle than practice lately. President Bush has presided over the nationalization of airport security screeners, the creation of the sprawling Homeland Security bureaucracy, the largest expansion of Medicare since Lyndon Johnson signed it into law and a 20 percent increase in all federal spending, adjusted for inflation, even before the cost of responding to Hurricane Katrina." Not to mention, say, the unparalleled federal expansion into education of No Child Left Behind just a decade after Republican orthodoxy was to abolish the Department of Education. So can we stop referring to the Republicans as the party that wants government off our backs?

Now that big government is back in, sort of, will the Democrats abandon their newfound fiscal prudishness? And how will Democrats get voters to trust them more with the "big government" issues du jour -- civil protection, national defense and domestic security? Will Democrats run in 2006 as better rescuers? They can -- and have -- argued that Bush's (and indeed Reagan's) visible disdain for bureaucracy and government has sapped federal competence. But as a recovering television producer, I sure wouldn't want to have to cut that into a 30-second spot.

In a piece exhorting the Democrats to go for the GOP jugular on Katrina (yes, more blame game, please), John Dickerson of the online magazine Slate approvingly quotes a nameless strategist who said they need to show "that we can be the daddy party." How helpful.

The Republican dilemma is more immediate and concrete. And it goes well beyond their embarrassment and frustration at the federal response to Katrina.

First off, the Bush agenda is now drowning in its own toxic soup. The administration's plans for Social Security and private accounts, the cornerstone of the "ownership" agenda, were barely bobbing afloat in choppy waters before Katrina was even a glimmer in a weather forecaster's eye. Now key items on Congress's fall docket are kaput. Republicans planned to try to extend the 15 percent tax rate on dividends and capital gains. That has been put off for the time being, as has legislation to make cuts in the estate tax permanent.

For many Republican theoreticians, tax cuts are not only stimulants for the economy, they're built-in shackles to government growth. So now there are no new shackles in the hopper, there's a war to finance, a natural disaster that has cost $62 billion already and a country with an apparently increased desire for competently delivered basic protective services. Hmm. Sounds like big government. But remember, Republicans, Ronald Reagan said government was the problem, not the solution.

For Republicans like Oklahoma's Sen. Tom Coburn, government as the solution is a big problem -- and one of those "internal contradictions." Coburn has joined with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain to try to enact some immediate, deep spending cuts to offset the Katrina expenditures. "The president could exercise leadership by insisting that we set priorities and offset the cost of Katrina relief by making changes elsewhere," he told John Fund of the Wall Street Journal. "Sadly, we don't have that leadership."

In that same article, Fund reminded Bush that FDR financed World War II by cutting other spending by 20 percent from 1942 to 1944, slashing some of his own favorite programs. And, he argues, Harry Truman slashed non-military spending by 28 percent in 1950 to pay for the war in Korea. Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation makes a very similar argument in a column called "Hurricane of Entitlements" on the National Review Online.

Small-government conservatives have been complaining about Bush's spending habits for a while. One of their house organs, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, published a piece by a Cato Institute scholar, Chris Edwards, last Feb. 2 that said, "fiscal conservatives are fed up . . . Clearly, the White House believes that big spending is good politics." The headline, of course, was "The Era of Big Government."

The post-Katrina administration is getting it from other conservative flanks too. George Will is the guardian of the classic conservative view that the human power to fix is vastly overrated. He warned the administration not to take its nation building down to sodden New Orleans, and not for fiscal reasons but because he thinks the administration demonstrated civic hubris on a global level in Iraq.

Voters have tended to escape blame in post-Katrina analysis, but I've had a harder time being charitable. I've come to think "the voters" see the government like a pharmaceutical company. They feel entitled to cheap if not free access to products and services, they want everything to be risk-free, and they want compensation if something goes wrong. Politicians of both parties have been perfectly willing to pretend the world can work that way (witness the Katrina blame game, which revealed a star "take responsibility" deficit). But it can't.

There is a strong temptation to look forward and say that perhaps after 9/11 and Katrina, the focus of what we want from government will be competence, at least enough to ensure that people won't die of thirst on the flooded streets of a major American city (and where have gone moral values?). You can see the appeal now of a 21st-century version of Herbert Hoover who, after feeding Europe and leading flood relief in six states, was elected in 1928 as the rescuer, the engineer, the man of action.

Competent, hard-working government is easy to promise, but it's hard for voters to believe in. It's hardly the stuff of modern strategy and campaign ads. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are prepared to be honest about how they really intend to run and finance big government. And as "eras" come and go, that honesty deficit remains constant.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of, based in Washington.

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.

By Dick Meyer

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