The conventional wisdom has settled on the subject of this year’s presidential campaign: it’s about the proper role of government in our nation’s life. This is a good argument to have, but don’t expect it to be resolved by the election. Americans have been debating the question since before the Constitution was drawn up, and we haven’t come to terms on it yet.
At the moment, we’ve got a Republican challenger who embraces the conservative conviction that government must be as limited as possible. In this view, much of what government spends is wasted; Ronald Reagan’s comment, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is our problem,” is its mantra. Conservatives want to reduce regulation, make cutting taxes the highest priority, propose handing Medicaid and other responsibilities to the states as block grants, and consider a more active government the wrong answer in almost every case. Privatization, contracting out, and a private sector freed from the intrusive hand of government will be the engines of a stronger society.
Against this view we have a Democratic incumbent, backed by liberals who see value in government’s role. They are concerned about social inequality, support a publicly funded safety net, and are prepared to levy the taxes needed to pay for it. In this view, public spending is necessary to stimulate the economy when needed and regulation is vital to checking the excesses of the market. There are times, this side would argue, when a muscular government is indispensable to our national fortunes — properly deployed, government can expand opportunities to achieve the American dream.
The gap between these views seems unbridgeable — especially in the midst of a presidential contest between two parties whose interest lies in highlighting their differences. Yet in the end this fundamental political gulf is not as wide as it appears.
This is because the real question in governing is rarely, “What is the ideologically proper thing to do?” Instead, it’s how do we run the country day-to-day? And how do we get a diverse group of politicians to make progress on our current problems while putting aside the problems they cannot solve? When Wall Street crashes or natural calamity strikes or schools fail, the pragmatism of the moment always comes to the fore, no matter what ideology elected officials espouse.
Which is where most Americans find themselves. They don’t consider government to be all good or all evil. They want it to work well and efficiently, be as productive as the private sector, exert itself to keep the market functional but not so much that it over-regulates business, and get a handle on entitlements so that they’re sustainable over the long term. Most Americans believe that we cannot prosper unless government builds infrastructure, protects property rights, helps develop the economy, sustains basic scientific research, undergirds the development of human capital and protects the social safety net.
In essence, government is a tool — it’s one of the ways that we as Americans meet the challenges that confront us, whether it’s fighting a terrorist attack or educating our children, safeguarding our retirement, undergirding commerce, and protecting the country’s natural treasures for everyone to enjoy. Government may not be the highest, broadest purpose of the nation, but most people recognize that without it, we cannot prosper.
So while many people may feel that Washington has too much power, they still want it to protect their interests. This is why we’ll probably never reach a consensus on the proper role of government. We are more likely to work out solutions issue by issue, trying to reach a pragmatic solution for the problem we face.
The nation’s current fiscal difficulties will surely force government to do less than many people want, and the public sector will have to become smarter, more productive, and more efficient. This is not a bad thing. But no matter who is in charge, we are unlikely to veer too far left or too far right, because the debate over the proper role of government will remain unsettled. And that’s not a bad thing, either.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.