Brooks and the ‘limited-but-energetic government tradition’

BROOKS AND THE ‘LIMITED-BUT-ENERGETIC GOVERNMENT TRADITION’…. In his speech in Ohio last week, President Obama tried to explain that the underlying cause of American progress can be entirely non-partisan. Democrats made Social Security, the minimum wage, the GI Bill, Medicare, civil rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights a reality, but “we also recognize that throughout our history, there has been a noble Republican vision … of what this country can be.”

The president noted that it was Lincoln who used the power of the federal government to set up the first land-grant colleges and launch the transcontinental railroad; it was Teddy Roosevelt who broke up monopolies; it was Dwight Eisenhower who built the Interstate Highway System; and it was Ronald Reagan who worked with Democrats to help save Social Security for future generations.

These Republicans, Obama said, “were serious leaders for serious times.” The implication was subtle — we’re facing serious times, but today’s Republicans aren’t capable of serious leadership.

David Brooks explores a similar point in his column today, suggesting that the Republican vision of the American tradition is overly narrow and “oversimplified” to the point of being “dangerous.”

The fact is, the American story is not just the story of limited governments; it is the story of limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility. George Washington used industrial policy, trade policy and federal research dollars to build a manufacturing economy alongside the agricultural one. The Whig Party used federal dollars to promote a development project called the American System.

Abraham Lincoln supported state-sponsored banks to encourage development, lavish infrastructure projects, increased spending on public education. Franklin Roosevelt provided basic security so people were freer to move and dare. The Republican sponsors of welfare reform increased regulations and government spending — demanding work in exchange for dollars.

Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire — a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control. They didn’t build their political philosophy on whether government was big or not. Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn’t.

If the current Republican Party regards every new bit of government action as a step on the road to serfdom, then the party will be taking this long, mainstream American tradition and exiling it from the G.O.P.

I find this more than a little compelling, at least in its description of the contemporary GOP worldview. The Republican ideology of the Obama era is mindless and reflexive — taxes are always bad, government is always bad, regulations are always bad. How these policies affect families, consumers, the economy, and American competitiveness are deemed hopelessly irrelevant.*

It seems hard to imagine now, but modest, occasional tax increases were, at one time, something Republicans would grudgingly accept as a necessary evil. The GOP doesn’t like to talk about it, but Reagan, for example, was in office for eight years, and he raised taxes in seven of them. It seems fairly obvious that nearly all of the GOP landmark successes on using the power of the federal government to promote the general welfare would be rejected by the Republicans of 2010.

The country still needs government to play a role in shaping the nation’s future. The country still needs taxes to go up at some point to help pay our bills. The country still faces challenges, Brooks noted, that “can’t be addressed simply by getting government out of the way.”

The column concluded, “If all government action is automatically dismissed as quasi socialist, then there is no need to think. A pall of dogmatism will settle over the right.”

It’s an important point, which I suspect is too late.

* edited slightly for clarity