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Nanny State Beyond Debate in Debates

By W. James Antle III

Dizzy from all the post-debate spin? If the campaign operatives and their media courtiers are being paid primarily to see how many days of hype they can squeeze out of a 90-minute event, they are certainly earning their salaries.

One of the many news stories rehashing John Kerry’s “global test” and how many times President Bush said “uh” made note of this Herculean effort by the campaigns to persuade the American people that they had just witnessed political oration on the order of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It closed by claiming that as the pundits and PR flaks dueled, regular people were sitting at home just waiting for answers from the two major candidates.

In other words, the author of this bit of condescension masquerading as populism pictures the American people as a bunch of children looking for mommy and daddy, in the form of John Kerry and George W. Bush, to solve all their problems. Whatever else can be said of this notion, it is surely not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they conceived this little experiment in self-government.

Though listening to the way some actual voters approach the debates, it is hard to say that this framing of the story was entirely inaccurate. The town-hall-style debate formats bring out the worst of such tendencies. Behind almost every question lies the assumption that every problem – ranging from the proper allocation of health care to bullying in schools – can be solved by action from the federal government.

The most notorious example of this format lending a platform for people who seek to be pampered by the nanny state was that pony-tailed guy from the 1992 presidential debate in Richmond who got up and asked then President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot: “[H]ow can we, symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you – the three of you – to meet our needs.”

Who can blame Bush 41 for looking at his watch to see when this tripe would be over? Clinton, of course, adeptly felt the questioner’s pain.

Why any Republican ever goes along with this format is beyond me. Even though the party has jettisoned its old Goldwaterite faith in small, constitutionally limited government in favor of sensitive, new-age “compassionate conservatism,” Republicans still find themselves out-promised and outmaneuvered in these kinds of government-benefit bidding wars.

Nobody is ever rewarded for answering a question, “I think the best policy in this area would be for the federal government to leave it alone.” A candidate would likely be booed off the stage if he were so impertinent as to reply, “I’m afraid I don’t see where the Constitution authorizes the federal government to get involved with the problem that you are asking about.”

No matter whom the candidates are or what debate format is used, here is one debate that we surely won’t have: a discussion over what parts of the mammoth federal government can be cut. Oh sure, there might be the occasional reference to rooting out waste, fraud or duplication. There might be some sort of administrative tinkering that will be presented as “reinventing government.” But when push comes to shove, if it’s important the candidates will call for a larger government role in it.

You will not hear that impressive-sounding programs like prescription drugs for seniors necessarily impose staggering burdens on future generations of taxpayers. You will not hear promises of free health care actually come at great costs. You are not likely to witness a riveting exchange in which the candidates acknowledge that federal programs sometimes worsen the problems they are intended to solve.

In this election cycle, Kerry will say that Bush isn’t spending enough on Program X. Bush will respond that funding for Program X is in fact at an all-time high and he will cite the relevant figure, which is sure to be no less than in the hundreds of millions. Kerry will retort that his plan would offer even more money and that the president’s future budgets would cut Program X savagely.

And on and on it goes. Some of this bias toward government activism is understandable. The candidates are, after all, running for the chief executive position in the federal government. If they wanted to extol the virtues of free enterprise or private charity, there are probably more relevant jobs they could seek than the U.S. presidency.

There are also plenty of salient issues in this campaign – war and peace, immigration and border control, confronting the terrorist menace – that require strong government action. It seems appropriate that the candidates would spend a great deal of time discussing their plans to engage the government in these endeavors. And it is always the case that in a time of economic anxiety, where many breadwinners fear losing their jobs and health insurance, people are going to find the allure of the welfare state difficult to resist.

But there are good reasons why people who expect too much from government and politicians are usually disappointed. If Americans really believe Bush and Kerry are our symbolic parents, then this country will come to symbolize one dysfunctional family.

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