I'm going to tell you a riddle. It's a paradox of sorts, and it's confounding some of the brightest political minds of our time. Here it is...
The Republican Party has lost the last two presidential elections. In the House of Representatives, they lost the majority of the nation's votes. In the Senate, they're outnumbered 55 to 45.
The future looks even dimmer. The youngest generation is more liberal than its immediate predecessors, and they've been turning out in record numbers. The electorate is becoming more educated and more diverse -- two liberal trends that don't show signs of stopping anytime soon.
And yet, at the state level, the story is completely reversed. Republican governors outnumber Democrats 30 to 20, and they control a majority of state legislatures.
How can that be? What are Republican politicians doing right at the state level that they aren't doing at the federal level?
I'll give you a hint: They aren't who they say they are.
The answer to this riddle is the greatest act of hypocrisy in modern politics. It's a magic act, really. An illusion. Don't be fooled by appearances. Look at what they do, not what they say.
Republican politicians say they want smaller government. They say the states are better at governing than the feds. They say we can afford tax cuts. They say we need tax cuts.
But their actions tell a different story.
Take Obamacare for example. The Affordable Care Act instructed the states to set up exchanges where people could purchase affordable health insurance that they weren't getting from their employers. Twenty-six governors declined, choosing to let the federal government do it for them. Of these twenty-six, twenty-four were Republican.
These Republican governors, who say the states are better at governing than the feds, ceded enormous power to the federal government, violating a core principle of their party's ideology. And then they crowed that Obamacare was a failure because it required a massive federal bureaucracy -- the very bureaucracy that they chose to create!
The dirty little secret of Republican politicians at the state level is that they love the federal government. They need it. They depend on it.
The Republican governors proved that point earlier this week when they begged their fellow partisans in Washington not to shut down the federal government.
A federal shutdown would hit Republican states particularly hard, since they receive far more federal spending, relative to the taxes they pay, than Democratic states. For every dollar they put in, Republican states get $1.46 back. Democratic states get $1.16. Of the 22 states that voted for John McCain in 2008, 86 percent received more federal funding than they paid in taxes, compared to only 55 percent of the states that voted for Barack Obama.
Then the Republican politicians have the temerity to brag that their states have lower taxes. Well, of course they can afford lower taxes: The feds are picking up the tab!
What they don't tell you is that they're spending just as much money. They're just being subsidized by the Democratic states!
Thus the riddle is solved: At the state level, Republicans are cynically and diabolically riding to victory on the wings of a big federal government while claiming to be doing the exact opposite.
Meanwhile, at the national level, they're just starting to learn how to play this game. In Washington, Republicans really have been trying to shrink the federal government, so much so that they threatened to default on the nation's debt and blow up the global economy if the President didn't agree to cut spending on everything, including retirement programs.
It wasn't until they realized that the spending cuts were extremely unpopular -- because, you see, the public actually needs the services that the government provides -- that they backtracked and claimed that they never supported them in the first place. And when the President finally proposed cuts to retirement programs, they attacked him for even considering such an idea... even though they basically forced him to do it.
Next, they passed a budget that mandated severe reductions in federal spending, but when they had to specify which programs to cut, they wouldn't even show up to vote. As Paul Krugman recently put it, their attitude seems to be, "Don't cut you, don't cut me, cut that fellow behind the tree."
But the award for worst hypocrisy surely belongs to Oklahoma Senators Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, who went all-out to prevent sending federal aid to Hurricane Sandy victims and then demanded that the federal government send aid to their home state after tornados ripped through it in May.
Maybe they're finally starting to figure out what state-level Republicans have already discovered: The government is an essential part of our social fabric. It does important things, and someone has to pay for those important things. You can't cut spending without hurting people, and you can't cut taxes without cutting spending or blowing up the deficit.
There's no such thing as real magic. Anyone who says differently is trying to trick you.
This is an updated and expanded version of an op-ed that was originally published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.