If you eat a bowl of hot soup while riding a bike, nobody's going to be shocked if you slam into a tree. Moreover, as you spit out a few teeth, no bystander is going to say, "This just proves how important it is that people eat hot soup while they ride bicycles."
And yet, this is essentially what folks like former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich are doing when they declare the "era of big government is back." A host of pundits and politicians are arguing that the disaster of Sept. 11 negates all arguments for smaller government because of the need for a forceful federal response to the attack.
But the truth is, the conservative critique (ital) against (ital) big government was strengthened by the tragedy of Sept. 11. It seems to me that our overextended government, which commissions studies on cow flatulence and the size of doughnut holes, was as distracted as a guy on a bike with a bowl of clam chowder. Conservatives want to get rid of the chowder, not the bike.
Thus, it's disconcerting to see columns like Jim Hoagland's Washington Post column entitled "Government Makes a Comeback," or to see Congressional pork justified by polls showing Americans support their government.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman especially misses this point when he writes: "President Bush denigrated Washington during his campaign and repeated and repeated the selfish mantra about the surplus that 'it's your money - not the government's money.' How thankful we are today that we have a Washington, D.C., with its strong institutions - FEMA, the FAA, the FBI and armed forces - not to mention a surplus to help manage our way out of this crisis."
I don't get it. Did candidate Bush campaign on a platform to abolish FEMA, the FAA or the FBI? Yes, I'm glad "we have a Washington D.C." But I didn't know it was going anywhere.
I doubt there is a mainstream conservative who's advocated abolishing the FAA or the FBI. Yes, there have been those of us on the right who've criticized the corrupt and incompetent hacks usually appointed to FEMA, but those criticisms were aimed at making FEMA stronger, not weaker.
Conservatives believe in limited government, not no government. From the perspective of the vast majority of American conservatives and libertarians, the FBI, the Defense Department, the FAA, INS and even FEMA constitute the irreducible core of what Washington is supposed to do.
It's when the feds move away from their core mission -- to defend the borders, punish criminals and maintain order -- that conservatives get antsy.
Most conservatives do not think the government should worry about how many gallons you can get out of a single toilet flush. We're troubled by federal regulations requiring the hiring of employees according to race, gender or sexual orientation. We don't think government should meddle in local schools and museums. Or that Congress should spend its time and energy bucking up the self-esteem of schoolgirls or making sure that people don't say nasty words to each other.
The media have done yeoman work reporting that various agencies had warned the appropriate officials that something like this could happen. Washington did virtually nothing.
The National Commission on Terrorism's report, which came out over a year ago, contained a number of concrete suggestions, including increasing the ability of the Treasury Department to fight money laundering, freeing the CIA to hire the sorts of murky folks who might actually know terrorists, and treating Afghanistan as a "rogue state." Not surprisingly, these were the first things Congress and the White House did (ital) after (unital) the Sept. 11 attack.
A 1997 Justice Department memo on how to respond to terrorism, unearthed by The Washington Monthly, actually has a drawing of the World Trade Center on its cover, with the actual spot where the plane hit it highlighted in the crosshairs of a gun.
Is it outrageous to think that the politics of "lockboxes" and creating "communities of character," or Senator Jeffords' insistence that his precious Northeast Dairy Compact take precedence over all other government business, didn't distract politicians from the work that is supposed to take top priority?
Recall how President Clinton bragged about his ability to "compartmentalize" or "multitask" in the Oval Office. Maybe the bragging was uncalled for considering his inability to stop Osama bin Laden. Yes, I know, fans of President Clinton say that if you didn't wanted him distracted, you shouldn't have tried to impeach him. Well, if he didn't want to be distracted, he shouldn't have "multitasked" Monica Lewinsky. And, when he got caught doing it, he should have resigned.
Regardless, it is easy to play Monday morning quarterback. Perhaps President Clinton did more than we know. And I firmly believe the current White House now has all of its priorities in precisely the right place.
But please don't tell me that the need for a strong federal response at home and abroad to an act of war somehow justifies a new era of bigger government any more than a broken leg justifies an even bigger bowl of soup on your handlebars.
Correction: In my last column, I referred to setting the "Stars and Bars ablaze." I meant "Stars and Stripes. While the cause of this mistake is a mystery, I should say I don't think burning flags is ever a good idea.