Our liberal friends are always nostalgic for the previous generation of Republicans. They were so moderate! Not like the current crop of extremists. Now E.J. Dionne has got all nostalgic about President George W. Bush.
The 2012 GOP presidential field on display Monday offered not one idea about how to solve the problems facing our country that didn’t boil down to cutting taxes, slashing regulation or eliminating large swaths of government.
What troubles E.J. is that Rep. Michele Bachmann, the extremist, no longer looks that extremist in the middle of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates.
That’s why I felt nostalgia for Bush, especially the guy who was a candidate for president in 2000. Unlike this crowd of Republicans, Bush acknowledged that the federal government can ease injustices and get useful things done.
Of course, Dionne continues, he has no nostalgia for the later, war-mongering Bush. Oh no.
But I appreciate what E.J. said, partly because he indicates that liberals are getting nervous. You see, they don't get nostalgic when extremist Republicans are running around getting nowhere. They only get nostalgic when the new breed of extremists looks like they might actually win. When Nixon looked like winning, they got all nostalgic about Ike. When Reagan looked like winning they got all nostalgic about Tricky Dick. When George W. Bush looked like winning they got all nostalgic about Poppy Bush.
What these liberals don't do is figure that it might be something liberals are doing that is helping elect these Republicans that seem, in each generation, more extremist than the last one. Let us answer the unposed question. What is it that liberals are doing that makes the Republican Party more and more extremist, and reduces it to a party of cuts: "cutting taxes, slashing regulation or eliminating large swaths of government"?
Here is the telling phrase: "the federal government can ease injustices and get useful things done." Here is the line between liberals and conservatives, between Democrats and Republicans.
Sure the federal government can "ease injustices" but Republicans believe that government can only do something about the really big injustices: e.g., slavery and legally enforced segregation. But when it comes to regulating the details of the workplace, when it comes to gigantic entitlement programs that hugely increase the cost of hiring workers, then Republicans say Enough Already!
It comes down to this. When we suggest "the federal government can... get useful things done", the answer that Republicans make is: "not much." Why? Because most useful work in this world is about making products and services that people want and are willing to pay for. Government at all levels is really bad at doing these useful things that require flexible and adaptive response to changing needs, tastes, and market conditions. That is why all government programs end up as subsidies for powerful producer interests. Nobody goes to government to start up a useful program that people are willing to pay for. They go to government to start up a program that they and their friends believe is useful, but that, for some reason, business has failed to produce at the price that the advocates want to pay. Then, when the program doesn't deliver much of anything, the advocates sneer that program opponents are "mean spirited" or don't care about kids.
Of course, this is a charitable analysis of E.J. Dionne's nostalgia. When we talk about "injustices" and "useful things" the fact is that people disagree profoundly about what counts as an injustice and what counts as a useful thing. The great political conflicts are precisely about deciding what injustices are serious enough for the government to ease, and what useful thing the government ought to get into. But E.J. Dionne will need to get nostalgic about another couple of GOP political generations before he gets to realize that.