Government was too distracted, not too small

Posted: Dec 12, 2001 12:00 AM
On Tuesday, Dec. 11, Sen. Charles Schumer made the formal announcement on The Washington Post op-ed page that the "'new' New Deal" has begun. "The president can either lead the charge or be run over by it." No doubt the president is grateful for the heads-up from the liberal first-term senator from New York. Actually, Schumer is just the latest in a parade of liberals, including Tom Friedman of The New York Times, Jeff Faux of The American Prospect and Jim Hoagland of The Post, to announce that "Big Government is back." But my favorite such argument came in the Nov. 19 edition of the proudly lefty magazine "The Nation": Former LBJ aide, Bill Moyers, writes, "This catastrophe has reminded us of a basic truth at the heart of our democracy: No matter our wealth or status or faith, we are all equal before the law, in the voting booth and when death rains down from the sky." I guess it's worth noting that we'd all be equal when death rains down from the sky if we lived in a monarchy or dictatorship. Nonetheless, Moyers takes this truism and seems to translate it into a justification for single-payer health care, the repeal of NAFTA and a television network dedicated to exposing the evils of corporations and conservatives (which is funny if for no other reason than that's what Moyers has been doing at PBS for 30 years). So, while Schumer may be a Johnny-come-lately on the whole topic, the significance of his manifesto-lite is that it telegraphs Democratic arguments going into the next election cycle. "The era of a shrinking federal government has come to a close," writes Schumer. "From 1912 to 1980, the federal government grew with little interruption. ... For the next two decades, the federal government stopped growing, and by some measures even shrank, with Bill Clinton doing more of the shrinking than any other president." Alas, this is all pretty dishonest. He cites 1980 as a date solely because that was the year Ronald Reagan was elected -- not because there was any sizable decrease in the size and scope of the federal government that year (recall that Reagan wasn't even inaugurated until 1981). Indeed, it's hard for both conservatives and liberals to admit, but gross welfare spending went up on Reagan's watch. And the reason the size of government exploded under Reagan is that he spent lavishly on defense. In turn, the "shrinking" Schumer lays at Bill Clinton's feet -- and upon which Bill Clinton himself rested his claim to "reinvent" government -- was almost entirely the result of a massive downsizing in defense-related jobs. Which illuminates the real problem with Schumer and others who want to force-feed an already bloated federal government. "For the first time, we are engaged in a war in which more Americans are likely to die on the home front than on the battlefield." Hence: "For the foreseeable future, the federal government will have to grow." Because: "Only one entity has the breadth, strength and resources to lead ... ." This, according to Schumer, is the "'new' New Deal." Well, Chuck needs to reread his high school civics textbook. The proposition that the federal government should provide for the safety and security of its citizens is the "Original Deal," not a new one, let alone a new, new one. It's in the Constitution of all places. In fact, the very first paragraph reminds us that the Constitution was formed in order to "provide for the common defense." Conservatives and even most libertarians have always recognized the authority of the federal government to spend money on defense and security. That's why Reagan spent money like a pimp on Saturday night on defense, while Bill Clinton balanced the budget on the back of the defense establishment. In fact, the more obvious, honest and accurate conclusion to draw from Sept. 11 is that the federal government was way too distracted. Because of people like Chuck Schumer, the federal government spends an awful lot of time -- and money -- policing the size of classrooms, the ingredients of potato chips and the generosity of milk subsidies, but not nearly enough policing the borders and the airports. If you hired a security guard to watch for shoplifters, wouldn't you be annoyed if he spent all day wearing a Walkman, playing video games and stuffing his face with pork rinds? Schumer, who seemingly wants to use the war on terrorism to replace "do it for the children" as an excuse to nationalize vast chunks of the national economy, says that the president will have to "face down the hard right" in order to provide for domestic security. But it was the hard right that championed a strong national defense and vigorous law and order policies from the get-go. What they've opposed is the sort of costly and anti-constitutional social engineering championed by the likes of Chuck Schumer. I'm glad that he's rediscovered his constitutional obligations, but I can do without his new New Deal.