By Steve Rodriguez
Beware the beast? No, indeed. In fact, based on what has recently been occurring in Washington D.C., Americans seem more than eager to embrace the beast formerly known as big government.
Forget what those Republican rugged individualists have repeatedly told you these past few decades. Turns out that when the chips are down, the federal government beast can be your most reliable friend, no matter your political party preference. That is the lesson to be derived from the pending bipartisan government rescue plan that more accurately reflects the out-of-the-box political thinking of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, than the conservative small government philosophy of Republican saint Ronald Reagan and his anti-tax acolyte Grover Norquist.
Both Republicans and Democrats have been working feverishly in the past few days to develop and pass federal legislation intended to combat the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This trillion dollar stimulus bill includes dramatic provisions for industry bailouts, loans for small businesses, and the handing out of thousand dollar checks to many American families—basically, all those things previously considered anathema to Republican politicians intent on reversing the growth of government.
In observing the recent bipartisan efforts of both the executive and legislative branches, however, I contend the time has come to entirely dismiss the legitimacy of two famous quotes that have been exploited in the past by Republican politicians to portray big government as something to be tamed, if not exterminated.
In 1980, then Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan won over many voters with the quote: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” While ignoring such noble accomplishments as victory in World War II, Social Security, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the federal highway system, the G.I. Bill, and the moon landing, Reagan was able to paint the federal government as a bumbling, out-of-control behemoth capable of doing nothing much beyond wasting taxpayers money. Expressing such a sentiment got him elected twice. Additionally, smaller government was used as rationale for the famous Reagan tax cut bills he proposed.
A few years later, another Republican political heavyweight, Grover Norquist, won over many conservative hearts with the memorable quote: “I don’t want to abolish government. I just want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” This provocative statement by the president and founder of Americans for Tax Reform served as a rallying cry for Republicans eager to carry on the work of Reagan. The quote served to further articulate big government as a monster, and was later used by George W. Bush-era Republican politicians to inspire more tax cuts.
In summary, both of these quotes have been repeatedly employed as clever and catchy bludgeoning tools designed to pound the idea into everyone’s head that big government inevitably means bad government.
Republican politicians have long considered themselves as rugged individualists, able to thrive without any expectation of the government offering a helping hand. They have often resorted to the romantic symbol of the American frontiersman, venturing forward to confront and conquer dangerous threats only to thrive by living off nature and ultimately taming it in the name of freedom.
In doing so, they have frequently succeeded in portraying big government as the number one impediment to maintaining our personal liberties and to unleashing the full potential of the U.S. economy. The government is always seen as an uncontrollable beast, perpetually hungry for more tax revenue, a cesspool of waste and corruption, and insensitive to fulfilling the real needs of the people. “Starving the beast” (a quote attributed to an unnamed Reagan administration official) by cutting taxes has been the chosen Republican strategy.
This “less taxes, less government” sentiment has waxed and waned over the years, depending on which political party occupies the White House. It seems to have reached its apex with the Trump tax cut bill passed in December 2017.
But as the bipartisan rescue plan shows us, the last thing we need in a crisis is a weakened government incapable of flexing serious muscle. Big government comes in handy when a disaster disrupts the routines of life and poses a serious threat to the U.S. economy. Only the federal government possesses the magnitude of resources sufficient to cushion the effects of an impending economic meltdown. No other institution can offer such a lifeline of loans and handouts, not to mention the mobilization of industrial and scientific resources needed to produce a significant influx of medical supplies.
The 2008 federal bailout of financial firms served as evidence that big government is necessary for the health of this country. This latest bailout only confirms that a big beast is a helpful beast. Few in Congress can now dispute this notion. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are apparently few rugged congressional individualists in a once-in-a-lifetime economic and medical crisis.
I suggest that in the future, advocates of reducing government waste and corruption focus on other ways than tax cuts to ensure an effective federal government. Term limits, lobbying restrictions, better government oversight, campaign funding reform, and the recruitment of better candidates for political office are a few possible recommendations that immediately come to mind.
In the meantime, I further recommend we permanently remove the aforementioned Reagan and Norquist quotes from our political discourse. If there is a cemetery for irrelevant political rallying cries, a deep burial site should be immediately dug to entomb these two quotes in the hopes they can never be resurrected for the purpose of getting votes, enacting tax legislation, or stoking fear of our government.
Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.
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