'Remember the $400 hammer? How 'bout that $600 toilet seat?" asks a Conservatives for Patients' Rights TV commercial criticizing President Barack Obama's health-care plan. "Seems when Congress gets involved, things just cost more."
As it happens, I do remember the incident of the $436 hammer, the one that made headlines back in 1984. And while it may "seem" in hazy retrospect as though it showed how "things just cost more" once those silly liberals in Congress get started, what the hammer episode actually illustrated was a very different sort of ripoff. The institution that paid so very much for that hammer was President Ronald Reagan's Pentagon. A private-sector contractor was the party that was pleased to take the Pentagon's money. And it was a liberal Democrat in the House of Representatives, also known as "Congress," who publicized the pricey hardware to the skies.
But so what? Myth is so much more satisfying than history, and with myth the competence of Washington actors from 25 years ago doesn't matter any more. Nor does it matter which arm of the federal colossus did what. Republican or Democrat, White House or Congress, they're all part of a monolithic, undifferentiated "government" that acts according to a money-burning logic all its own.
The myth has been getting a lot of play from conservatives in recent weeks as the debate over health care has heated up. The message, as always, is that government can't do anything right.
Where the conservative mythologists show their hand is when they use their own monumental screw-ups, committed during conservatism's long years in charge of the government, to prove that government in general is a futile proceeding, and that Democratic health-care plans, in particular, can't possibly succeed.
We heard this bizarre reasoning during last year's campaign season. "Unless you're pleased with the way the federal government has been running anything lately," Gov. Sarah Palin declared last October, when the federal government had been answering to her fellow Republican for nearly eight years, "I don't think that it's going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the feds."
Among former President George W. Bush's gravest and most characteristic blunders, of course, was his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, when the nation learned the true price of government by crony and contractor. But for conservatives, that is too nuanced a view. The real lesson to learn from Katrina as we debate health care is simply that government can never work. "The federal government would run a health care system -- or a public plan option -- with the compassion of the IRS, the efficiency of the post office, and the incompetence of Katrina," carps the official summary of the Republicans' Patients' Choice Act.
I've always thought that P.J. O'Rourke was only half joking when he wrote, years ago, that "Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it." Conservatives grasp the grand strategic sweep of politics better than liberals, and consequently they have always seemed to understand that what they do when they're in charge can help to reinforce the myths that put them there.
A government that works, some conservatives fear, is dangerous stuff. It gives people ideas. Universal health care isn't just a bad idea for their buddies in the insurance business; it's a gateway drug to broader state involvement in the economy and hence a possible doomsday scenario for conservatism itself. As two fellows of the Ethics and Public Policy Center fretted in the Weekly Standard in May, "health care is the key to public enmeshment in ballooning welfare states, and passage of ObamaCare would deal a heavy blow to the conservative enterprise in American politics."
On the other hand, government fails constantly when conservatives run it because making it work would be, for many of those conservatives, to traduce the very laws of nature. Besides, as we can now see, bungling Katrina recovery or Pentagon procurement pays conservatives huge dividends. It gives them potent ammunition to use when the liberals have returned and are proposing another one of their grand schemes to reform health care.
This is the perverse incentive that is slowly remaking the GOP into the Snafu Party. And in those commercials and those proclamations we should also discern a warning: That even if Democrats manage to set up a solid health-care program, conservatives will do their best, once they have regained power, to drop it down the same chute they did the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Maybe they will appoint a tobacco lobbyist to run the thing. Maybe they will starve it for funds. Or antagonize its work force. And as it collapses they will hand themselves their greatest propaganda victory of all. They will survey the ruins and chide, "You didn't really think government could work, did you?"