December 06, 2004

Liberals for States Rights?

First liberals were pulverized in the election. Now Senate Republicans are discussing the “nuclear option” of filibuster rule change by Dick Cheney fiat, aiming to disintegrate the last remaining federal checks and balances. Since the political ground conditions have changed, it’s right to re-examine our approach. However, we need to go beyond debating whether we can appeal to evangelicals, a reaction suggested by oversimplified exit polls, and more broadly reassess our strategy. For example, Clinton-like, we should strongly support increased state and local power at the expense of big federal government.

What you talking about, Willis?

Traditionally, it was Republicans who claimed the states rights issue, primarily on libertarian grounds. But their support was as strategic as it was philosophical. As the opposition party in the House for 40 years (1954–1994) and in the minority in the Senate for much of that period, it was in the Republicans’ interest to decrease both the number of government employees, who typically voted for Democrats, and the size of government programs, which created jobs for which voters could be grateful.

Mine Is Smaller Than Yours

Notwithstanding changes in the balance of power and the facts, right-wing politicians continue to label Democrats as promoters of Big Government. Yet ever since the Republicans began winning control of Congress in the Reagan era, it is they who deserve the label. For example, Clinton trimmed the government, while Reagan made it bigger, as Michael Kinsley made clear in his Feb. 9, 2001 Slate article:

Federal government spending was a quarter higher in real terms when Reagan left office than when he entered. As a share of GDP, the federal government shrank from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent—a whopping one percentage point. The federal civilian work force increased from 2.8 million to 3 million. (Yes, it increased even if you exclude Defense Department civilians. And, no, assuming a year or two of lag time for a president's policies to take effect doesn't materially change any of these results.)

Under eight years of Big Government Bill Clinton, to choose another president at random, the federal civilian work force went down from 2.9 million to 2.68 million. Federal spending grew by 11 percent in real terms—less than half as much as under Reagan. As a share of GDP, federal spending shrank from 21.5 percent to 18.3 percent—more than double Reagan's reduction, ending up with a federal government share of the economy about a tenth smaller than Reagan left behind.

Now, under Bush, the government has ballooned to proportions of unhealthy obesity not seen since Morgan Spurlock spent a month eating nothing but McDonalds

And as John “Bear Hug” McCain likes to point out, dissolute House Republicans cannot resist stuffing their bills with pork barrel projects – and the compliant President signs into law every proposal for maintaining mariachi music or bolstering “Banana Factory after-school programs” that crosses his desk. In his first term, Bush didn’t veto a single appropriations bill.

The worst part is that we are paying disproportionately for this crap and more. As Paul Krugman said in 2002, at a federal level “blue America subsidizes red Americato the tune of $90 billion or so each year.”

Libertarians Agree

Libertarians agree that spending is out of control. More than a year ago, the Cato Institute complained in an article called The Bush Betrayal that non-defense discretionary spending had soared by 20.8 percent in Bush’s first 3 years. And the Economist warned that under Bush, “Americans will soon have to accept that federal spending is rising to a permanently higher level, one closer to European levels of government spending.” (The Economist, however, did not warn that Americans are in danger of having European style social benefits like universal health care and robust public transit.)

Big Government Has Become Inimical to Our Ideals (or, “Screw ’Em”)

So not only are Democrats no longer the Big Government party, our ideals are no longer served by a large and expanding Washington monolith. A government of any size that is dominated by conservative ideologues and guided by religious extremists is incompatible with a liberal worldview. If conservatives continue to have their way, the protections of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Constitutional Amendments will be unavailable to the theocons and the conned alike. And that’s just the beginning.

As self-proclaimed moral champions, Big Government Republicans love to stick their big, fat nose in other people’s business – and leave others to worry about the deadly consequences. Heartland-dwelling hawks support an Iraq policy that increases the threat of terrorism, but it is urbanites in New York and Washington who will pay the price. Congress sucks up to the NRA by letting lapse the ban on assault weapons, but it’s the police officers in Detroit and Cleveland who die as a result. One-size-fits-all doesn’t work for us.

Liberal states, by contrast, have been models of innovation. California’s successful November 2 stem-cell research ballot measure will make it the world leader in research to fight diseases from diabetes to Parkinson’s. California also leads the way towards independence from Middle East oil and less pollution with its famous emissions standards. Another blue state, Vermont, has an innovative Civil Union law. The list goes on.

But What About Social Programs?

Of course we won’t abandon support for crucial federal programs like secure Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and basic rights like heath care for all Americans. Yes, these programs cost money. But successfully implemented, their overall economic cost will be less than the Republican alternative. Today we pay huge sums for health care and get little or nothing in return. We will do better. In the meantime, as we start planning to win the 2006 federal elections, we need to start taking care of business on a state and local level. 

Having done nothing during the last four years to provide heath care, Bush won’t suddenly do so; on this important issue, like many others, he is all hat and no cattle. On the other hand, if four or five progressive states start providing heath care, we will gain experience in creating successful programs that will serve as models both in debates during upcoming elections and in implementation at the national level.

Winning the States

As Tenth Amendment defenders, we must of course win key gubernatorial and state congressional elections. God-willing, we will win the tense recount in Washington. But we can aim higher. In 2006, Republican Governors in blue states California, Florida, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio, together representing more than 88 million people, will be up for re-election. While we work on winning back Congress, let’s also focus on putting a progressive in each of those governors’ mansions, and on keeping key governors like Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. On the other hand, the Governator may be married to Maria Shriver, but he still endorsed Bush. Every California campaign ad should remind the voters in San Francisco and LA exactly what Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger stands for.

(c) Copyright 2004 Will Friedman, All Rights Reserved

By Will Friedman in Politics | Permalink  | 


A filibuster is a check and balance?

Posted by: Jack | Dec 17, 2004 7:10:56 PM

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