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Dems on Defensive Over Role of Government

Michael Barone

By Michael Barone

Published October 13, 2014

 Dems on Defensive Over Role of Government

Things are spinning out of control. Out of control, at least, by government, and by the United States government in particular. You don't have to spend much time reading the news — or monitoring your Twitter feed — to get that impression. Armed fighting in Ukraine. Islamic State beheadings in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Hong Kong.

Ebola spreading from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to Dallas, Texas, where 100 people were exposed to the Liberian who lied to airport screeners and arrived in the United States with the disease. Or the Spanish nurse who came down with the disease.

No wonder embattled Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., stumbled when asked whether the Obama administration was handling Ebola well. He ran an ad in August accusing his Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, of somehow leaving the nation unprepared for the epidemic. But Pryor had nothing coherent to say this week.

The Ebola death in Dallas and the beheadings in the Middle East illustrate how what happens elsewhere in the world doesn't stay there. It comes back to strike the United States sooner or later — sooner and sooner, it seems, these days.

It is a misreading of history to believe that Americans typically have been unconcerned with what happens across the oceans or south of the border. Since the 1790s, when the Founders split into two political parties — one sympathetic to revolutionary France in a world war, one sympathetic to British royalists — Americans have recognized they are affected by foreign developments.

In the last century, after seeing threats rise from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, they have come to expect their presidents to prevent things from spinning out of control abroad.

And they have come to expect that government should perform competently at home. More competently than, say, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Internal Revenue Service or the Secret Service have been performing lately.

Barack Obama came to office believing that in a time of economic distress, voters would want an even larger government to respond to financial crisis and bolster the economy. In 2009 and 2010, he and his congressional supermajorities believed that their major policies — big spending increases in the stimulus package, Obamacare, and higher taxes on high earners — would be popular. People would be happy if a competent government gave them more of what Mitt Romney infelicitously called "free stuff."

Turns out that's not the case. The stimulus package and Obamacare were unpopular when proposed and, even after the bills were passed so that we would know what was in them, they have remained unpopular ever since. As for higher tax rates on high earners, voters just don't seem to care.

That's why it is Republicans and not Democrats who are running ads this campaign cycle on Obamacare. It helps explain the apparent trend toward Republicans in most seriously contested Senate races, as well as why the House Democrats' campaign committee is pulling money out of races to unseat Republicans and putting it into races to protect incumbent Democrats.

Undermining the case for big government is an increasing perception that big government just doesn't work very well — even at things nearly everyone agrees government should do, such as providing health care for veterans or protecting the president and his family.

The deterioration in government's competence is not just a recent or American phenomenon. That's a point made in three recent books by the Economist's John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Yale law professor Peter Schuck and New York lawyer Philip Howard. It's also a major topic in Francis Fukuyama's recently released "Political Order and Political Decay."

But it is a process that has gained speed under a president who doesn't seem much interested in the mechanics of government and whose confidence that more spending will produce better results keeps being undermined by events.

Democrats this year are running not just against the trend that presidencies usually (though not always) grow stale in their sixth year. They are in the uncomfortable position of defending policies that work against the grain of change in an Information Age, and for putting more trust in a government that isn't competently performing basic tasks.

That's an uphill climb as the world spins out of control, government keeps floundering and the president seems unable to master events.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner.

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