The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s not about the size of the government. It’s about competence.

Protesters hold signs outside the Trump International Hotel in New York City on Saturday. (Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

Republicans who voted for a massive debt-producing tax cut, supported anti-terrorism surveillance, routinely demanded increases in defense spending, shamelessly shoveled federal funds into their states (for opioid treatment, disaster relief and other needs) and have never had the nerve to curtail let alone cut spending for Social Security or Medicare would have us believe they have been protectors of “limited” government. Republicans have also long favored government intervention in the war on drugs, limiting access to abortions and regulating marriage. However, they say now they are “worried” the coronavirus may be a game-changer. Really?

The Post’s Dan Balz captures the fiscal fairy tale Republicans are telling themselves:

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who is a former president of the conservative Club for Growth, said he and other Republicans worked to set expiration dates for some of the spending programs aiding those affected by the downturn.
“I certainly hope that [the pandemic] does not reshape or dramatically expand the role of government in the long term,” he said. “I think this is a necessary step for an absolutely unique set of circumstances. But I think this is a very, very rare moment. . . . I’m hoping that we return as close as possible to normal.”

Give me a break. “Normal” was record debt and expansion of the spending initiatives and government activities referenced above. And, of course, many of the very actions we see now were based on 2008 legislative models (e.g., TARP, the auto bailout) that many of them supported.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Certainly there are specific policy items now even Republicans have come around to support such as more spending for health care and paid leave. However, the real tipping point — and the danger for the right wing — is the affirmation that competent government is critical and performs functions that cannot be fobbed off on lower levels of government or the private sector.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo commented at his daily news conference Sunday, “Government matters today in a way that it hasn’t mattered in decades.” Government has to be competently run with a bureaucracy that has not been dismembered (compare New York or California with the executive branch of the federal government under President Trump). It has to be properly funded (one of three stimulus bills came in with a sticker price of about $2 trillion, more than doubling the 2009 stimulus of about $830 billion). It has to be data driven, informed by experts and communicated clearly and quickly.

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The affirmation of the importance of good government is seen in the sky-high approval ratings of governors and the lousy ratings Trump receives. It is seen in the overwhelming priority that voters place on continuing stay-at-home measures that experts recommended and states imposed over vague calls to restart the economy because, Republicans apparently believe, the lesser of two evils is supposed to be allowing thousands more to die.

The coronavirus pandemic is too serious to let the president hold freewheeling press briefings in real time, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republicans have not been serious about limited federal government since Calvin Coolidge. What actually changed over time and reached its zenith under Trump was antagonism toward government and resentment toward elites and expertise. Whether you think this resulted from economic strain brought on by globalization or, as I do, racial and cultural resentment among white, evangelical and non-urban Americans, Trumpian Republicans lauded the denigration and antagonism toward government (egged on by business interests and ideological right-wing donors).

Now, the painful, deadly lesson is laid bare. No significant segment of voters actually wants government to be small. The issue is what you want government to do and how well you want it to perform. The 2008 financial crash and now the covid-19 pandemic have reminded many that one party does not give two hoots about running government well, which in a crisis means it will spectacularly fail to protect Americans.

Read more:

James Downie: Even Trump’s best lackey can’t defend him

Jennifer Rubin: Hold these Republicans accountable for deaths caused by recklessness

The Post’s View: Trump’s reopening guidance has a glaring gap

Dana Milbank: Trump tells a damnable and murderous lie

Leana S. Wen: Three key issues missing from Trump’s guidance on reopening the country