“There is another destructive mindset: the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘Leave us alone.’”
“I know the reputation of our government has been tainted by scandal and cynicism. But the American government is not the enemy of the American people. At times it is wasteful and grasping. But we must correct it, not disdain it. Government must be carefully limited, but strong and active and respected within those bounds. It must act in the common good, and that good is not common until it is shared by those in need.”
Reads like the words of a liberal, don’t they? Could have been said by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, right?
Wrong. These quotations come from a speech by George W. Bush in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 22, 1999. It’s the speech in which the future president described himself as a “compassionate conservative.”
Of course, many — across the political spectrum — would argue that Bush’s presidency was neither conservative nor compassionate. His administration spent money at record levels, turning a government surplus into a record deficit, and his response to the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina was far from compassionate.
But that’s a subject for another article. More interesting is how quickly the Republican Party has repudiated Bush’s words, uttered less than fourteen years ago.
Here’s Kentucky Senator Rand Paul on the role of government: “So the government does have a role; they are an arbiter. They are they the one who protects property, protects the sanctity and the name that goes and attaches to the house. They protect transactions. They protect commerce. There is a role for government.”
In other words, Senator Paul believes government should act only as a policeman protecting property, contracts, and commerce. Notably missing from Paul’s definition is any sense that government acts in what Bush called “the common good.”
Paul styles himself a “libertarian.” As such, he’s often out of touch with other, more typical Republicans exemplified by Paul Ryan, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012.
“Our nation is approaching a tipping point,” says the member of Congress from Wisconsin. “We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century. This is a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency. Depending on bureaucracy to foster innovation, competitiveness, and wise consumer choices has never worked — and it won’t work now. We need to chart a new course.”
In Ryan’s rather cramped vision, government has become the national pacifier on which the public sucks for sustenance. It’s not too much of a stretch to see a direct link from Ryan’s “complacency and dependency” to Mitt Romney’s ill-fated “47 percent” of Americans “who are dependent upon government” and “will vote for the president no matter what.”
Noting the differences between George W. Bush in 1999 and Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Mitt Romney today is more than a pedantic exercise. Rather, it points out one of the conundrums of modern American politics, one that diminishes the ability of Republicans to win national elections.
Americans like to rail against government, from the Revolutionary motto “Don’t Tread on Me” to its more modern reincarnation in the contemporary tea party. At the same time, most Americans intuitively understand that they live in a complicated, interdependent world in which the old notions of rugged individualism and unfettered free market economics work to benefit the few at the expense of the many.
That realization means that most Americans see government as a positive good in their lives. Government, they believe, evens the playing field, protecting the weak and powerless when needed and aiding all to strive for the American dream.
The strictures of a Rand Paul of a Paul Ryan may sound good at first; but in the end, most Americans understand them to be hollow, empty of the compassion which Bush expressed in 1999 and devoid of the needs of modern society.
The words of President Obama in his second inaugural address remind us of the role government plays today. “We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few,” the president said. “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Those are the sentiments of a president in tune with the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Americans.