Paul Begala: Government to the Rescue in Boston

Along with some heroic civilians, it was government workers who ran toward the blast zone. And they were unionized government workers. Charles Krupa/AP

There are lots of lessons we will, in time, draw from the Boston Marathon tragedy, but one is already clear: don’t denigrate government workers. Along with some heroic civilians, it was government workers who ran toward the blast zone. And they were unionized government workers.

If there’s a bogeyman on the right these days, it is a unionized government worker. Mitt Romney, who got rich in part through laying off private-sector workers, made his feelings about government employment clear in the 2012 campaign. “During the president’s term so far, he has added 140,000 more government workers,” he told supporters in San Diego. “Not only do we have to pay for them, but they have to do something every day. So, they look at things they can do, alright? Places they can interfere.”

Things they can do. Places they can interfere. Alright? How about in your former hometown, Mitt? Just over a mile from your former office, government workers found things they can do, places they can interfere. What they did was save lives. What they interfered with was terror. (Oh, and by the way, the progressive wonks at ThinkProgress estimated the number of government workers actually fell in President Obama’s first term by half a million.)

The Republican platform hails “Republican governors and state legislators who have saved their states from fiscal disaster by reforming their laws governing public employee unions.” In case you don’t understand RepubliSpeak, that means they’re real happy that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has hammered the public employees of America’s Dairyland.

Rush Limbaugh, the intellectual leader of today’s conservatives, has called public-service employees “freeloaders.” Of course, Limbaugh is a professional blowhard—a hyperbolist (like me). And yet even sensible, mainstream Republicans parrot his public-employee bashing. When he was governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels called public-sector workers “the new privileged class in America.” This from a man who parlayed his own public service into a lucrative job at a major pharmaceutical corporation.

The anti-government-employee fever becomes life-threatening when it’s extended to public-safety jobs. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has not had a full-time director since the NRA pressured Congress to make the job dependent on Senate confirmation in 2006. The current acting director is also the U.S. attorney for Minnesota. Pretty tough to run an agency with thousands of armed special agents while simultaneously running a large and complicated prosecutorial office. But that’s the way the right wants it. They seem to want to hog-tie the good guys and demonize the heroes.

Some of it, to be sure, is simply the desire to cut the budget. Public safety costs money. Training and equipping cops and firefighters and paramedics costs money. The U.S. military costs money—a lot of money. In fact, in an effort to save money in the National Guard budget, Republican Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia last year proposed a very specific cut: “The Boston Marathon, we got to take a pass,” Kingston said in an Appropriations Committee hearing, according to Politico. Thank God that, despite Kingston’s efforts, more than 460 Guardsmen and -women were on the scene in Boston Monday.

It wasn’t always this way. Ronald Reagan built his political career in part on law and order. And George H.W. Bush’s most memorable campaign events were with a sea of blue-clad police officers.

Maybe I’m old school, but I still think cops and firefighters and federal agents are heroes. And underappreciated, underpaid heroes at that. Former Labor secretary Robert Reich has noted that, even with benefit packages that are often more generous than in the private sector, government employees still earn less than their private-sector counterparts with the same levels of education. And here’s the rub: private-sector jobs rarely require you to put yourself in harm’s way to protect a stranger. You don’t believe me? Next time you’re in trouble, call an investment banker.

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