"Do you miss your government yet?" That was Phil Gramm, crowing on one of the Sunday talk shows during the Republicans' shutdown of the federal government during 1995 budget warfare. Grinning ear to ear, Gramm, who was in the process of launching a presidential campaign, actually seemed to think that the resounding answer would be "No!" American conservatives have long courted applause for their "toughness" and "common sense" by talking about how government is so rotten that they want to shut the whole works down and hang a "Gone Fishin'" sign on the gate. Sometimes, to their eventual despair, they come close enough to convincing people that they'd actually do it that the people suddenly have visions of what life without federal government would really be like, whereupon the approval of people like Gramm drops like a rock. The weird fact about many, maybe most Americans, is that they enjoy ranting as if they were libertarian anarchists even as they take it on faith that Social Security will always be there, schools and police and fire departments will get funded, and somebody out there will check to make sure that there's only so much rat feces in their hot dogs. One reason that so many people will always regard Ronald Reagan as the greatest president of their lifetimes is that he was a convinced hypocrite of exactly the right kind; he raised taxes whenever he needed to while continually vowing that he would never let the greedy Democrats force him to raise taxes, and denounced the spread of big government while spending us into a black hole of debt. The open secret of his success was to talk tough, even callously, while being careful not to step on the toes of anyone who might bite back. (You try lobbying homeless discharged mental patients sometime.) One of his concrete achievements was to expand the degree to which it was acceptable for the face of government to disavow any responsibility for the care of its citizens, especially those on the bottom; he probably wouldn't have been able to do that if he'd been willing to fully live up to the viciousness of his rhetoric.
What's been clear for a while now, and just keeps getting clearer and clearer, with new revelations such as those about the workings of the Justice Department and new developments such as the Democrats' caving on the war funding bill, is that we are now, finally, living the dream. George Bush, Jr., the compassionate conservative, didn't come into office talking about shutting down the government and leaving everyone high and dry; back in 2000, his me-so-speaka-the-Gingrich line of cant was supposed to convey the message that he was the antidote to the buffed-and-polished militia group that the Congressional Republicans had turned into. But for all practical purposes, he's managed to shut down the federal government as effectively as anyone has. At first, this seemed just to be the accidental side effect of monumental incompetence and cronyism; when you make sure that all the most powerful government offices are run by somebody who somebody who knew them in college remembers as a cool guy who threw the sweetest keggers, you guarantee that nothing much will get done. There are pitfalls to this approach, sure. When people who know something about reading terrorist chatter are marginalized in favor of people who something about reading political contribution lists, sure, people are going to get hurt by people who are going to go unpunished. But on the plus side, with the right people in charge of FEMA, when a major American city is washed off the map, then the undesirables who weren't able to charter a helicopter will learn that government isn't there to coddle them and they'll have to learn to take care of themselves. Sure, people who are slow to get with the program might get a little upset when they see crybabies sitting on rooftops in the late summer heat, but they'll get over it. A new vision of America is something that not everyone can adjust to overnight, but people get used to what they have to get used to. It's not as if anybody can really hold you accountable--not when you've basically shut down the legislative branch and the judicial branch is a fully owned and operated subsidiary of the Republican party.
It's true that Bush once had grander ambitions than this. In the wake of his "re-election", flush with what he called "political capital", he was going to roll back the New Deal. He couldn't get anyone to play on that one, but even if his current stance has as much to do with neurosis as a deliberate plan--"Today, faced with mounting resistance from the scientific community to adopt his position that the sun is cold and water's not wet, the president folded his arms and held his breath until he turned blue"--it's still an amazing accomplishment in terms of its effect on the country and his own place in history. Assuming nothing much changes, and it's hard to imagine any way it's going to change without some triggering event that it chills my marrow to contemplate, we are going to go through the next year and a half with the American military bogged down in someone else's civil war, hanging in there for no purpose so that the president can spend the rest of his life insisting that things were just about to turn around when his successor spoiled everything by cutting and running. In the meantime, for that year and a half, the country will have no real federal arm for fighting crime or protecting us from terrorists, just a bunch of partisan chair-warmers taking turns going on TV and before Congress to act indignant in the face of people demanding to know why they still have jobs. And this year's hurricane season is predicted by some to be a doozy. This is life without government, folks. It hasn't turned out to be the financial windfall some predicted, what with the deficit that was sweated away in the Clinton years having come back to us having grown seven heads. Nor has it resulted in the streamlining of the bureaucracy itself; part of Junior's master plan, it turns out, has been to pointlessly inflate the size of government, resulting in paralysis as a by-product of confusion, rivalry, backbiting, whatever it takes to keep anyone who knows what he's doing far outside the loop. The attitude among the Democrats and the media now seems to be that, hmm, maybe if we keep our fingers crossed we won't need a government for anything until 2009, and if we just wait until then, the next president can get everything running again just in the nick of time. It's an optimistic attitude, sort of, and Americans love to be optimistic, especially as an alternative to actually doing something. I just hope that it doesn't turn out that governments aren't like motorcycles. Because it's not so easy to get those suckers to just start up again after they've been left lying in the mud and the rain for the better part of eight years.
[x-posted at The Phil Nugent Experience]