Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Cardella's Conundrum

The Conservative Contradiction

You can't put a pricetag on democracy... but elections cost too much. The people want to vote... but "We think with a low turnout, we can win this." Students shouldn't vote in local elections... but should sign our petition.

There are a cluster of contradictions at the core of Republican Lori Cardella's campaign for the Board of Supervisors. But in a bigger sense, those contradictions aren't unique to her campaign.

Supervisor Rod Sullivan gets bashed for his weekly newsletter's "government is good" feature, but he's merely pointing out the easily overlooked obvious: Government does stuff. And it does stuff that the market economy doesn't do.

It's always been one of my pet peeves when people say government should be run like a business. The goal of government is fairness, equality and service. The goal of business is profit. Maybe that's why conservatives gravitate to business and progressives self-select the public sector.

But if conservatives hate government so much, what happens when they participate in government? The contradiction at the heart of conservative governance is that, if your basic default answer is "no, government shouldn't do stuff," then you're rejecting the whole premise.

There is a model for conservative governance, or at least there was up until the late 1970s. But through the Reagan era, into the Gingrich Era, and now into the Tea Party era, the old paradigm of responsible, frugal stewardship has been abandoned by Republicans. In its place we have a shrill no, no, no cry, couched in Stamp Act rhetoric that was shopworn back when Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan were using it in 1992. There's little more substance than "we hate taxes and we hate anything Obama wants to do."

The late years of the Republican congressional majority were like the last pages of Orwell's Animal Farm. Spending and deficits hit record highs. There were a lot of reasons for that, but one key cause is that the post-Gingrich, post-Reagan Republican Party is ill-suited for governing. We went from Building A Bridge To The 21st Century to building a bridge to nowhere. "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again," Orwell wrote, "but already it was impossible to say which was which."

That leaves it to Democrats, supposedly the "tax and spend" party, to be the responsible stewards, to deal with the realities of challenging budgets rather than mere rhetoric. Janelle Rettig joins the Board of Supervisors right at budget time, and keeps telling people, "you're going to be surprises how fiscally conservative I am."

Out on the west side of town stands the old county poor farm. You can tour it and still see the shackles where the indigent mentally ill used to be chained. We don't treat human beings like that any more. But humane treatment costs more money than putting people in irons and feeding them gruel did.

That's an extreme example, but one of many. The bulk of local government budgets are paying for people,and the biggest expenses are safety, health, and education. The patrol cars and plows out on the streets, the H1N1 prevention, the teachers getting a snow day today (don't worry, taxpayers, they'll make it up).

Johnson County voters are more tuned into this than most. We're a public sector town. We teach, we heal, we research. One person's tax cut is another person's layoff. And as one Press-Citizen commenter writes, "given that (Cardella) is a freemarket libertarian who believes that the less government the better, what does she hope to accomplish in a county where the largest single employer is the state?"

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