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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Big Government’s” Two Problems

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 23, 2010.
It’s certainly old news that anti-government sentiments are on the rise these days, and that anti-government rhetoric is at the heart of the Republican Party’s hopes for regaining control of government in November and in 2012.
But as Ron Brownstein explains painstakingly in his latest column, it’s important to unravel these sentiments into their component parts. Trust in government has been fragile even if the best of recent times, and mistrust of government sometimes has to do with perceptions of incompetence, and sometimes with perceptions of its unworthy beneficiaries:

Polls suggest that an energized core of voters — possibly around 40 percent — has ideologically recoiled from Obama’s direction. That threatens Democrats, but their greater problem is that voters open to an activist government in principle are not convinced that it’s producing enough benefits in practice.
Partly, that verdict rests on concerns about effectiveness. Many economists may agree that Washington’s economic initiatives prevented a deeper downturn. But with the economy still sluggish, surveys show that most Americans believe that the medicine simply didn’t work well enough. That judgment compounds doubts about federal competence fed by failures stretching back from the Gulf oil spill to the New Orleans flood. One senior Democrat calls this the “echo of Katrina” problem.
The second worry revolves around government’s priorities. Most voters think that the principal beneficiaries of everything government has done to fix the economy since 2009 have been the same interests that broke it: big banks, Wall Street, the wealthy.

In other words, anti-government sentiments are an amalgam of feelings that can’t be simply attributed to a Tea Party-ish fear of government trampling liberties. More common is the feeling that “big government” might be acceptable if it did a good job, or if it worked on behalf of the interests of a majority of Americans.
The first problem shows that the 1990s-era progressive emphasis on “reinventing government” to focus on tangible results needs to be revived. And the second problem shows that Bill Clinton’s identification with “the forgotten middle class” is another golden oldie we should listen to again.

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