Why governing Americans is so hard

Our demands on policymakers are so inconsistent and irrational that we make governing nearly impossible.

Jessica Hill/AP/File
In this June 30 photo, tea party member Denise Riendeau of Norwich, Conn., waves to passing cars at a tea party rally outside of the office of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn. Polls show that Americans have conflicting views on how they want their government to operate.

The conventional wisdom is that Americans are fed up with their government. But our demands on policymakers are so inconsistent and irrational that we make governing nearly impossible. We hate big deficits, but oppose the actual tax increases or spending cuts that we need to dam the flood of the red ink. We are furious that government passed an $800 billion stimulus last year, but feel lawmakers are not doing enough to get the economy going. We want government to “do something” about the gulf oil spill but reject government interference in private business.

And that’s just the beginning. Conservatives cry “states rights” when it comes to the new federal law requiring individuals to have health insurance, but are silent about the parallel federal requirement that insurance companies must sell to all comers. Liberals want to make Social Security benefits more generous, but only as long as they are paid for with higher taxes on the wealthy. Seniors oppose the “government take-over” of health care for those under 65, but will fight to the death to preserve their (government-run) Medicare.

We oppose new spending, but happily support targeted tax subsidies that are economically no different. And governors of both parties demand more federal money to pay their teachers and fund their Medicaid programs, but would rather complain about the accompanying red tape rather than repair their budgets by rationalizing their own hopelessly outdated tax systems.

We are, collectively, four. We want what we want, and we want it now. And we want somebody else to pay for it.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll provides new evidence of our schizophrenia. Fifty-seven percent of respondents oppose the federal government spending more money to boost the economy. But 62 percent want Congress to extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. Go figure.

Americans are not stupid, and in fact their collective wisdom on public policy is usually pretty sound. But the nation faces immensely complex policy issues at a time of severe economic turmoil. Americans are nervous and uncertain. They want change, a mood that both presidential candidate Barack Obama and the tea party have successfully tapped. But change also makes people very uncomfortable, especially when they already feel insecure. So we want to move in a new direction and are simultaneously terrified about what it would mean.

Politicians sometimes talk about having an “adult conversation” with the public about difficult issues. But they rarely do. Eighteen years ago, Ross Perot tried to have one on fiscal policy. He came in third in that year’s presidential election. Twenty-six years ago, Walter Mondale said he’d raise taxes if elected president. He won one state. Ronald Reagan, who painted a gauzy picture of morning in America, won 49.

Obama has not forgotten those lessons. That’s why he said so little about the need to control medical costs during the health reform debate, why he vows to raise taxes only for the rich, and why he describes climate change legislation as a jobs bill rather than what it ought to be, an effort to reduce consumption of oil, gas, and coal. Like Reagan, he hopes to build his reelection campaign around flowers and bunnies.

Maybe Obama should try some honest talk about fiscal issues. Jack Lew, his choice for Budget Director can help. No doubt our constant and inconsistent demands for a free lunch won’t make it easy. On the other hand, the way things are going for the president and his party, a candid chat or two couldn’t make matters much worse.

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