Teachable Moments

One of the emblematic movements of the 1990s was an ideologically ambiguous crusade called Reinventing Government. It took its name from a surprise best-seller by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. The idea was that we still need government, but we need it to be leaner, more flexible, more adaptive--a more customer-driven government that steers more and rows less.

This clever mantra had particular appeal for New Democrats, and it was ready-made for Bill Clinton. Reinventing Government allowed moderates to embrace public purpose, but also to posture as modern and market-like (like the conservatives) and oppose the straw man of big, bad, bureaucratic command-and-control government. The reinventors of government could be for deregulation and privatization, and even be part of the chorus of catcalls against the caricatured Democratic past, yet feel they were not abetting the cruder movement to destroy government. They were merely bringing it up to date.

The impulse was noble, but the execution badly flawed. Under Clinton, the word was made flesh through a program unfortunately named the National Performance Review. This initiative, directed by Vice President Al Gore, set about assessing government agencies and making recommendations to improve them. It represented, at first, a real opportunity to restore popular faith in the idea of government in the course of streamlining it. But to the extent that Reinventing Government did get attention, the glory went to the budget savings, not the need to reclaim public institutions and functions. Ignoring Daniel Burnham's famous exhortation, it was a story of making small plans.

What of John Kerry? He has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate, and he is no government basher. He did not join several pro-business Democrats in their effort to cripple the Securities and Exchange Commission to win plaudits on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. His record on tough environmental regulation is exemplary. But Kerry has sometimes imbibed this same conventional wisdom about the need to disparage government.

In the 2000 election, when Kerry had a close Senate race, I was on a panel with him at a gathering of suburban Democratic town committees. A questioner asked about deregulation. Nobody wants more regulations, Kerry began. When he finished, I said, Excuse me, Senator, I want more regulations, and I mentioned corporate excesses such as drug-company price gouging that were crying out for more public remediation, not less. Kerry quickly explained that he meant he was opposed to regulations in the sense of red tape. But this was a good illustration of the seductiveness of this fashion, and the tendency it creates for Democrats to do the Republicans' ideological work for them.

In retrospect, if ever a decade cried out for more government, it was the 1990s. The bipartisan deregulation--of airlines, banks, stock brokerage, accounting, hospital pricing, electricity, broadcasting, etc.--that began in the late '70s came home to roost by the late '90s. In every case, deregulation overreached. The Wall Street scandals were fruits of the dismantling of the Glass-Steagall Act, which once prohibited conflicts of interest by commercial banks. Enron was a witches' brew that drew on both electricity deregulation and financial deregulation. Even greater competition among airlines, which promised consumer benefits, partly faltered because weakened antitrust police let big carriers manipulate fares and gobble up little ones.

If one consequence of the extreme anti-government mood was to cripple government's regulatory functions, another was to undermine its equalizing role--weaker minimum wages, weaker protection of the right to unionize, smaller social transfers. And the extreme fiscal squeeze, caused by more government bashing, made it seemingly impossible to address new needs that could be solved only by government, such as universal health coverage, or high-quality, universal pre-kindergarten and child care.

In many respects, the extremism of George W. Bush following the moderation of Bill Clinton was a repeat of the extremism of Ronald Reagan following the cautious centrism of Jimmy Carter. Both Democratic presidents, by insisting that they were only limited partisans of government, softened the ground for their successors. Both Democrats were ideologically on the defensive, while their Republican counterparts were ideologically on the march.

What should a President Kerry do? He should not let a week go by without celebrating a public hero, and not just the firefighters and the veterans. The civil servant at the Food and Drug Administration who fights drug-industry pressure and keeps a harmful drug off the market is a public hero. So is the sec auditor who busts a corporate thief so a million people don't lose their pensions, and the Environmental Protection Agency scientist who safeguards our water from some scofflaw mogul. Lionizing these public servants is a broader reminder of why capitalism perennially needs to be housebroken. Surely it's not anti-business to demand fair dealing that protects ordinary investors, workers, and consumers. Surely this is not an outmoded, Depression-era conceit that markets now solve on their own. When the next Enron occurs, which it will, Kerry should use the moment to teach some broader lessons. He should publicize not just the public heroes but the private scoundrels, and the need for public regulation that they imply.

It's been a long time since a progressive president invested some of his political capital to remind Americans why we need government. It's an investment that will pay legislative dividends in public support for the particular initiatives Kerry champions. Imagine a time, again, when the right finds that it's bad politics to bash government because citizens actually appreciate what only government can do. Kerry could make that happen

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