Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural address, famously declared that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
Twenty-seven years later, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and seven-plus years into the reign of Bush and Cheney, Reagan's anti-government battle cry should be on trial. But, stunningly, it is not.
This needs to change. The presidential candidates' view of the role of government should be one of the central questions of the last 36 days of the campaign. And it should definitely be a question they are asked at their next debate:
"Sen. McCain, given the part deregulation played in the current economic crisis and your support of a massive government bailout of the financial industry, are you now ready to break with Ronald Reagan's assessment?"
And, to be even handed: "Sen. Obama, in 1996, Bill Clinton cheerfully announced that 'the era of big government is over.' As the Dow plummets and Wall Street and Main Street turn to Washington for big government bailouts, are you now ready to break with President Clinton's assessment?"
The shift in my own thinking on the role of government was what led to my disillusionment with the Republican Party, and the transformation in my political views. I've always been progressive on social issues: pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights -- even when I was a Republican. The big difference is that I once believed the private sector would address America's social problems. But the hope that people would roll up their sleeves and solve this country's social ills without the help of government was never fully realized. There were never enough volunteers or donations -- and the problems were just too massive and intractable to tackle without the raw power of appropriations that only government can provide.
Our economy is not the only thing that is crumbling. So is the philosophical foundation of the modern Republican Party -- also known as the Leave Us Alone Coalition, led by its spiritual guru, Grover Norquist. His dream of making government so small "we can drown it in a bathtub" has been embraced by the GOP mainstream.
Indeed, during his 2003 inauguration, Jeb Bush stood in front of Florida's capitol building and said: "there would be no greater tribute to our maturity as a society than if we can make these buildings around us empty of workers; silent monuments to the time when government played a larger role than it deserved or could adequately fill."
I sadly suspect that Jeb and Grover and their Republican compatriots have not yet updated their views of government -- they have not yet made the connection between demonizing government and looking to it to save the day.
The financial meltdown has put the Grand Old Party's schizophrenia on full display. But why are so many in the media, the Democratic Party, and the Obama campaign averting their eyes from the spectacle of a party that wants to drown government until they need it to bail out Wall Street or AIG -- that wants to vanquish government workers, unless they are listening in on our phone conversations or working hard rolling back government regulations?
It's like the story, probably apocryphal, of the agitated -- and obviously confused -- senior citizen imploring a GOP politician not to "let the government get its hands on Medicare."
With the madness of this contradictory mindset exposed, voters will have a chance to decide if they agree with Norquist and Jeb and W and Cheney and the Republican Messiah himself, Ronald Reagan and, yes, with John McCain. And even Cindy McCain who, in her otherwise bland convention speech, called for "the Federal government" to "get itself under control and out of our way."
A staggering 83 percent of Americans believe that we are heading in the wrong direction. And, I'm sorry, Sen. McCain, I don't think it's because of too many earmarks or because $3 million was spent in 2003 to study bear DNA in Montana.
Size matters in some things, but when it comes to government, it's not the size of the government, it's the way it is utilized.
"Big government" didn't get us into Iraq. It didn't spy on Americans or open black op rendition facilities all over the world. "Big government" didn't create Guantanamo or okay the use of torture. "Big government" didn't leave the residents of New Orleans to suffer in the wake of Katrina. "Big government" didn't cause the financial industry to run off the rails. Indeed, the free market is what created all the new, risky ways for banks to game the system and, eventually, implode -- then come calling on "big government" to ride to the rescue.
So let's hear what McCain and Obama think the fundamental role of government should be. I can think of no better way to underline the massive gulf between the two candidates -- and the two parties they represent -- at the very moment when McCain is so desperately trying to blur the differences (see his recent shopping spree at the second-hand populism store: "Big discounts on 'fat cats' and 'Wall Street greed'!")
Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig says that if Americans recognize that the financial crisis -- and the need for a government bailout -- is due to "policies McCain still promotes... this could well be the event that effected a generational shift in governmental attitudes. Think Hoover vs. (the eventual) FDR."
But if we want to make sure that Americans make that connection, we need to put the question of the role of government front and center in the campaign. Economic policy and foreign policy and domestic policy are all important areas of debate. But before we continue looking at the (falling) trees, let's take a step back and consider the forest.
For those of you in the Pennsylvania area, on Monday I'll be debating Mike Huckabee in Hershey, Pennsylvania. For more information, click here.