Forcing Both Parties to Get Specific About What Government Should Do

As part of the How We Value Government series, demanding that both Republicans and Democrats be forced to outline a real vision of government instead of proposing vague cuts or making specific defenses.

There’s an old rule of thumb about Americans’ attitudes toward government that’s no less true for being familiar: Americans are “operational liberals” but “philosophical conservatives,” the political scientists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril concluded in their 1967 book The Political Beliefs of Americans, based on their analysis of dozens of public opinion surveys. That is, we favor the specific services government provides, but we’re distrustful on an abstract level and respond favorably to attacks on “big government.”

This small insight was true even at the peak of the Great Society and the era of “liberal consensus,” and it fits as an explanation for much of the back-and-forth of American conceptions of government ever since. Whether it accurately represents public opinion or not, it’s a good guide to the behavior of actors in the political process. Conservatives attack “government” as an abstract concept that has little to do with our real lives and mostly creates wasteful excess benefiting either bureaucrats themselves or other people. Liberals respond by trying to show the harsh reality of cuts to particular programs, especially safe ones that reach large constituencies. In 1994 and 1995, for example, voters were first drawn to Newt Gingrich’s promises to eliminate entire cabinet departments, but as soon as the idea of cutting government was converted to the reality of shuttering national parks and slashing Medicare, the political tides turned swiftly in the other direction. George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 talking vaguely about the need to change Social Security, yet given the opportunity to put such a plan in action, he saw the public lose faith so quickly that he never found a single congressional sponsor for the legislation. Even Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in what we still see as a critical moment in shifting attitudes toward government, largely backed off from that agenda after the 1981 budget cuts and his own ham-fisted attack on Social Security.

Mitt Romney’s announcement recently that he would eliminate several large government programs, but wouldn’t name them lest he face political criticism, represents the conservative tactical approach to Cantril-Free perfectly. (Except they usually remember not to read the stage directions.)

The struggle over government thus often takes the form of this push-pull between the abstract, where anti-government conservatism reigns, and the specific, where people seem to appreciate government. The result, until recently, has been a happy dance through which both sides achieve their short-term objectives: Conservatives win their share of elections, which they can use to push through tax cuts, without worrying much about the size of government, while liberals get their turns at power and avoid major cuts to programs. The Cantril-Free paradox has even generated new paradoxes of its own. Conservatives often expand government as political insurance, albeit carelessly, as in the creation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program in 2003. Liberals and Democrats are more likely to cut programs (such as the Medicare cuts of 1993 and 2010), both because they take government more seriously and in the hopes that showing a commitment to cutting waste and improving people’s experience of government will ameliorate their abstract opposition.

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But what’s missing from this well-rehearsed dance is any effort to force the question, to make a real choice about what we want government to do. That missing element has been devastating in the last few years, when it seemed impossible to convince the public or Congress that an emphatic government effort was the only way to prevent a long and debilitating recession.

For the most part, as Romney’s comment suggests, the 2012 election cycle is evolving into yet another battle between the abstract call for cutting government and the specific defense of popular programs, particularly those threatened by Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. But there are indications that the game might be changing. House Republicans have now tied themselves to the mast and voted twice for Ryan’s radical plan. They’ve built up some defenses against the classic attacks about cutting Medicare and other vital programs: They’ve drawn a new line that defines Medicare and Social Security for current seniors and those over 55 as benefits that have been “earned,” while for others they are unaffordable giveaways. They’ve redefined programs like unemployment insurance as if they were welfare. They’ve used deficit fever and misleading statistics to portray Social Security and Medicare as doomed, so that the only option is their cuts.

Meanwhile, embracing the need to reform entitlement programs, Democrats have (correctly and responsibly) blunted their own ability to play the old game. As Slate’s Dave Weigel wrote after the Republican victory in a special election in New York City last year, Medicare is “not really a wedge issue — it’s the slow death of a wedge issue.”

These two changes directly challenge the politics of “operational liberalism.” Going forward, it might not be enough to pick a few appealing government programs that reach the middle class and use them as political ammunition. And that could be a good thing. Instead of focusing on narrow specifics, this change demands a full-throated defense of government as a whole — programs that benefit “other people” as well as ourselves, programs that represent the shared benefits of our social contract. And it demands that we open up the “submerged state,” which obscures government programs and encourages the illusion that government programs benefit only someone else.  It calls for a full-fledged commitment to making sure that government programs, especially Medicare, are in fact sustainable for the future.

The biggest risk to the promise of shared prosperity, assisted by government, is that liberals and Democratic political operatives are living in the past and believe that they can replay the old Clinton game against Gingrich over and over again.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Roosevelt Institute.