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Let's make the right-sizing of government the goal

Posted: September 13, 2012 - 12:05am

We’re going to have a national debate about government, right? Both parties told us during their conventions that we must make a choice, didn’t they?

Yes, they did, but my fear is this debate may miss the mark about the proper role and size of government.

We have one side pressing for a more activist government and another whose most vocal supporters demonize government. Those of us caught between them are getting served a false choice between bigger or minimalist — yet what we really want is right-size government.

Since the Democrats just wrapped up their convention, let’s start with the center-left point of view:

Bill Clinton delivered a humorous line about Republicans doubling down on trickle-down. You could turn that around and say Barack Obama is doubling down on government and class warfare.

The president sees government as a way to give the middle class and poor a shot at a better tomorrow, whether through taxing the rich as a way to pay for programs, protecting the safety net or creating better schools.

Yes, there is a role for government to lift up those who have little chance for mobility. The extreme right may not think so, but limited-government apostles understand the role it plays, starting with good schools.

But believing in government-when-necessary differs from the government-first approach that Obama seems to emphasize. Note he didn’t cite Clinton’s famous observation that the era of big government is over. Rather, he spoke favorably about FDR. The tone suggested that he’s not backing down from being a modern liberal Democrat.

FDR was a consequential president, but here’s the problem with applying his approach now: A far worse economic crisis is heading our way unless we control the $16 trillion federal debt. There’s little quarrel among economists about that reality. Somehow, we must rein in our government so we can avoid a fiscal Katrina.

The president mentioned his $4 trillion debt-reduction idea. Fine, although in the nontax part of that $4 trillion, much of the savings comes from the Pentagon and interest on the debt. And there’s little about modernizing Medicare and Social Security.

At the same time he mentions the debt, he outlines ways to expand government. How can we do that if we know this crisis is brewing?

It’s hard to see how a center-left approach allows us to steer past that storm, which will limit the economy’s ability to grow. Instead, we need to double down on reducing the debt. Obama didn’t speak persuasively about that overarching priority, and that’s a problem.

Now, the Republican side:

The GOP must decide whether it will be a party of limited government or one that hates government. The former camp can speak to middle-road voters, but the latter one probably will scare them off with such a negative view of government.

George W. Bush used to talk about government if necessary, but not necessarily government. That captures the view of limited-government Republicans.

They believe that the marketplace can best distribute resources and that markets need freedom to spread opportunity. They extol the personal way that mediating institutions such as churches and nonprofits help those who are down and out.

But they don’t embrace an Ayn Rand libertarianism. They believe a preventive government can stave off problems before they arise. Whether that’s opening community health clinics in poor neighborhoods, spreading vaccines in sub-Saharan Africa or using tax dollars to provide water supplies, they know acting now curtails troubles later.

The GOP’s fire-breathers, such as Texas senatorial candidate Ted Cruz, love railing against government. My favorite example is hearing some of them in the Texas Legislature talk about public schools as “government schools.” The word “government,” by the way, is not used with a positive inflection.

They have the juice, though, and they are driving the GOP.

Their antigovernment view and Obama’s expansive-government ideas leave folks in the middle wondering who will talk about restraining government but also preserving its central functions. Paul Ryan has taken a stab at it with his ideas for modernizing but saving Medicare. Otherwise, right-sizing has not been the center of the discussion.

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