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Destroying government to save it

Democrats rightly sense political opportunity in the president’s performance failures and in the culture of corruption enveloping the entire Republican Party. But before smiling too broadly or shouting “We told you so” too loudly, progressives should contemplate the costs to our policy vision that accompany those political opportunities.

Democrats rightly sense political opportunity in the president’s performance failures and in the culture of corruption enveloping the entire Republican Party. But before smiling too broadly or shouting “We told you so” too loudly, progressives should contemplate the costs to our policy vision that accompany those political opportunities.

In the past 60 years, it has been Democrats who have seen government as a tool to solve problems, and for the most part Democrats have run government well. Republicans have not. But the net effect has been to reduce significantly voters’ confidence in the ability of governmental institutions to solve problems.

Many thought Hurricane Katrina would shock the nation’s conscience and build support for policies designed to alleviate the bitter poverty so vividly on display as the tragedy unfolded. But while there is a bit of evidence the country was moved by the suffering we witnessed, few could have looked at the federal response and said, “Boy we need that government to do a lot more.”

In March 2005, a Pew poll found 38 percent of Americans believed we were “a society divided into haves and have-nots.” A year before, the number was exactly the same. But in October of this year, after Katrina, it spiked to 48 percent, the highest level on record. One cannot be certain of the causality from data like these, but a Katrina effect is certainly a plausible inference.

Hardly dramatic demands to redress afresh the inequities in our society, but these numbers provide some indication of greater public sensitivity to the plight of the poor. Frankly, it is one of the few indications we do have.

Most of the data suggest Americans did not think race or poverty were major culprits in the response to the disaster. Just 29 percent said in a CBS poll that the fact that the people left in New Orleans were poor and black was a major factor in the government’s response. Only a third told ABC pollsters that the response would have come more swiftly if the victims had been wealthy and white. In fact, just 31 percent saw evidence of inequality in the inaction.

Voters did see failure, however. No more than a quarter perceived the response by any level of government as adequate. Confidence in the president’s ability to handle a crisis disappeared altogether.

Confidence in our public institutions peaked in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and has fallen precipitously since then.

When Democrats rightly lambaste President Bush for incompetence, it undermines public confidence in government. Having heard the message, voters have a difficult time turning around and saying, “That government couldn’t figure out whether Iraq had WMD or handle rebuilding that country or deal with Katrina, but I’d sure like it to take charge of my healthcare or take some more of my money to alleviate poverty.”

Of course, Americans tend to distinguish at least implicitly between the programmatic and bureaucratic powers of government on the one hand and its police and regulatory powers on the other. Voters have much more confidence in the latter than in the former. Indeed, their distrust of government programs is evident in the oft-repeated call to “keep government out of my Medicare,” which we hear in focus group after focus group. It suggests that these voters are so mistrustful of government programs that they cannot even believe a great program is run by the government, and they fear that government involvement would ruin a good thing.

Progressive policy solutions will be at a disadvantage as long as voters feel so strongly about the incompetence of government. Our critiques feed that perspective, which will help us win power but not support for our policies.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.