Editorial: It’s politics, not government

While on his presidential tour of Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa last week, President Obama ducked out from underneath the shroud of Washington’s partisan politics to occasionally defend the role of government: “Don’t buy into this notion that somehow all our problems would be solved if we eliminate government,” Mr. Obama said in responding to a question in Alpha, Ill., noting that police officers, firefighters and soldiers all represent the face of government. “There’s a difference between politics and government.”
Americans understand this intuitively, even though they forget it when overwhelmed by the partisan dysfunction so frequently on display in the nation’s capital.
“There are folks who are willing to engage in political brinksmanship,” the president said, in a reference to the Republican Party game of chicken over raising the debt ceiling, “even if it costs the country.”
Defining the difference between government and politics is a theme the president should repeat over and over, louder and louder, as the 2012 election season nears.
Today’s extreme partisan politics, the president should emphasize, is increasingly represented by politicians intent on scoring political points rather that working for the common good.
Repeating that distinction time after time is important precisely because one stated strategy of the Republican Party is to discredit the role of government. The common refrain used among Republicans — and stressed by Tea Party supporters — is that government services are at the core of our economic troubles. Reduce the dreaded influence of government, they say, and the nation’s economy will boom, jobs will be created, and American superiority will regain its luster.
It is, of course, utter nonsense. Government regulation did not cause the economic crisis that hit its peak at the end of President George W. Bush’s second term: precisely the opposite. The lack of federal regulation over the banking and finance industries — which allowed for risky home loans to hundreds of thousands of unqualified lenders — was the direct cause of the nation’s housing crisis. Adding insult to injury, was the financial shenanigans of too many Wall Street money managers. It was a game of double-jeopardy in which the deck was stacked in favor of unscrupulous bankers and financial brokers and against the national interests — a game that could have, and should have, been prevented with adequate government oversight.
Nor are environmental standards, as these same Republican shysters shout to the rooftops, the cause of the country’s economic malaise. Many of the standards under fire have largely been in place for the past 20 years, including through the boom years of the 1990s. Plus, tougher environmental standards almost always increase the value of locations and warrant the long-term viability of the associated projects. It’s when projects are unregulated that they are most susceptible to fraud, poor quality construction, environmental degradation and other long-term maladies that undermine their economic value. That’s just common sense.
But when politics turns ugly, and when politicians can score points by blaming the other party with bogus charges (because the public falls for gut reactions instead of rational thinking), then it’s easy to confuse the public into believing that government is the problem. One reported Republican strategy, in fact, is to make Washington so dysfunctional that voters — in desperation and out of frustration — reject all things that have to do with “big government” and embrace a philosophy calling for a smaller or minimal government presence. It’s a strategy that places party politics ahead of the national good.
And it is also a false illusion.
Smaller government would provide fewer services for the lower and middle class — a growing percentage of the nation’s population — at the precise time when more services are needed. And even if government services were reduced, does anyone think the political partisanship of conservatives would disappear, or would they simply press for greater personal advantage despite evidence of the widening gap between the rich and poor?
President Obama must counter the notion that government is the cause of the nation’s problems, and demonstrate how extreme partisanship is the true cancer zapping our nation’s strength and jeopardizing our collective health.

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