Thursday, August 18, 2011

An 'inconsequential' Washington?

Jeff Greenfield opined
Whatever Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s political fate, he has already carved a niche in history with his first appearance as a presidential contender. He offered up the single most galvanizing sentence in any announcement speech. “I’ll promise you this,” Perry said. “I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.”
He did not say inconsequential, he said as inconsequential as I can. But to a progressive, that wants to make it as consequential as possible, I guess any retreat must be frightening.
For ardent conservatives, it is the latest — and sharpest — battle cry for limited government. A lineal descendant of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Inaugural assertion that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” First cousin to George W. Bush’s charge that Al Gore “trusts the government; I trust the people.” It offers a twist on the famous hope of Grover Norquist — self-described head of the “leave us alone” caucus — that the federal government should be “down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.’
Grover might have gone a bit far, but I agree with Reagan and Bush.
For former President Bill Clinton, Perry’s promise prompted a scornful rejoinder: “He’s saying ‘Oh, I’m going to Washington to make sure that the federal government stays as far away from you as possible — while I ride on Air Force One and that Marine One helicopter and go to Camp David and travel around the world and have a good time.’ I mean, this is crazy.”
Is that what the Presidency meant to Clinton? Besides providing him with interns to pleasure him.
There is, however, something far more fundamental. It is a formulation of a brand of current conservative thinking that breaks radically with two centuries of American history: There is no mission — other than defense against foreign foes — that is the proper task of Washington.
The Constitution lists a few other jobs, reserving the rest to the states and the people, but Defense is certainly a big one.
Whatever America’s view about the size and scope of government — how much it should tax, what it should regulate, who or what it should subsidize — it has never embraced the idea that it should be “inconsequential” in the lives of its citizens.
Certainly not since the Progressive Era began, which is the problem, but is was not always that way.
Before there was a federal government, the Confederation Congress passed in 1787 the Northwest Ordinance — from which came the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Apart from forbidding slavery in those states, the act also provided that revenue generated from the sale of a portion of each township in the state would go to fund public education. It was, in other words, the first instance of federal aid for education.
Did the revenue come to Washington to then be doled out, or did it remain in the state, or even the township, earmarked for that purpose?
.... Beyond money matters: It took federal force to bring civil and voting rights to the black citizens of the South some half-century ago. That force clearly disrupted life in the South as it had been lived for generations. It was about as “consequential” a use of federal power as can be imagined. Is that the kind of power a President Perry would scorn? I doubt it — at least, I hope not.
It is not a problem. The slaves have already been freed, by a Republican, and the oppression of black citizens o the South by Democratic Governors has been dealt with.
Perry has been nothing but blunt about his disdain for Washington; about his view of Social Security and Medicare — probably the two federal programs that have the biggest impact on the lives of most Americans — as “Ponzi schemes.” As a political matter, Perry himself has some tough questions to answer — and he may be willing to stake out an argument based on the “unsustainability” of these programs.
Does Greenfield think they are sustainable as now formulated?
For me, the larger issue is how deep the disdain for all things Washington has grown. To argue that the federal government has grown too large and too distant is one thing Robert F. Kennedy, for example, made this argument often during his last years.
I do not know what Kennedy thought but it has grown too large and too distant. Any decision that can be made in the state rather than in Washington should be made in the state, and any decision that can be made in a town should be made there rather than in the state capital.
To argue that there is nothing of moment that Washington should be doing marks a version of that argument that is nothing short of astonishing.
Not nothing. Little.

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