Paul Begala: Why Now Is the Time to Defend Big Government

President Obama argued against the GOP's antigovernment assumptions in his Sept. 8th speech to congress. Jim Young / Reuters-Landov

Wildfires have consumed 3.6 million acres in my home state of Texas since December 2010. That’s about the size of the entire state of Connecticut. At least 700 homes have been destroyed, and four people have been killed. Of the 10 largest wildfires in Texas history, six have occurred this year. Think about that.

Now think about this: Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry has cut funding for volunteer firefighters, who are the first responders to 90 percent of all wildfires in Texas, by 75 percent.

Conservatives talk about government as if it were something foreign, alien, or extrinsic when in fact the Constitution says it truthfully and simply: “We the People.” Government is us. It’s capable of true greatness, real nobility, and majestic triumphs. I’d go further: the U.S. federal government is the greatest force for good in human history. Period.

The federal government freed the slaves and defeated Hitler. It built the interstate highway system, won the Cold War, integrated the South, put men on the moon, and killed Osama bin Laden. By the way, it also created the Internet, with Al Gore’s leadership. So there.

And yet the demonization of government persists. Sure, when the fires rage, Perry praises “the brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect Texans’ lives and property.” But even as the wildfires burned he hotfooted it to the Reagan Library on Sept. 7 for some good old-fashioned bashing of Big Gummint.

Even President Obama sometimes adopts the antigovernment premise, like when he killed his own administration’s air-quality standards. As if cleaner air, less asthma, and lower cancer rates would cause massive layoffs. But he got it right in his Sept. 8 speech to Congress, pummeling the notion that “the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is ... dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own—that’s not who we are. That’s not the story of America.”

The president is right. The truth is many of our problems were caused by too little government, regulation, and taxation (at least of the rich). Wall Street was deregulated, and when the casino went bust, taxpayers bailed out the gamblers. Regulators cozied up to oil companies, and 11 working men were killed in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy as BP’s well gushed millions of barrels into the Gulf of Mexico. After 29 miners were killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia, an independent investigation found that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration “failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners.”

The media have a responsibility here as well. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bashes retired teachers for getting an average pension of about $35,000 a year, why does no one point out that they’re worth it? Or that New Jersey students have the highest AP test scores in the nation? Because that wouldn’t fit the antigovernment narrative.

The truth is teachers didn’t cause our recession; firefighters didn’t cause layoffs; nurses and cops didn’t turn a record surplus into a record deficit. Politicians and corporate greedheads did. And yet government remains the villain.

There has always been a tension in the American character. We are at turns intensely individualistic and deeply communitarian. But right now the only side that’s speaking out is the individualists’. Why doesn’t some Democrat point out that our Founding Fathers, so revered by the Tea Partiers, gave us a motto: e pluribus unum—from many, one? They did not choose canis canem edit—dog eat dog.

Some of this country’s bravest and best work for the government. Yet in the GOP debate at the Reagan Library, Perry simultaneously praised the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden and claimed government doesn’t create jobs. Precisely whom does he think those SEALs work for? Enron?

If Perry hates government that much, maybe the next time his state’s on fire he can call a CEO.

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