Conservatives contend that the “mainstream media” is liberal, but even if true, liberals are exceptionally bad at selling their message in any media. Quick: give me a liberal aphorism or quote that helps set the political agenda today. Compare whatever you remember with these: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away.” “The problem is not that people are taxed too little; the problem is that government spends too much.” “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

These are all the words of Ronald Reagan, and this still-resonating rhetoric starts many political policy discussions today. Such debates are seldom founded on the thought that government does good things or that taxation can lead to a better society. Instead, the basic premises are that government is dangerous; government is too big; government is inept; government is incompetent; taxes are bad; taxation is too high; regulations destroy jobs. Reagan remains influential because he re-shaped the political dialog even though his actual policies often undercut conservative ideology. Thus, conservatives continue to maintain that economic growth spurred by tax cuts will cut the federal deficit and reduce unemployment. Reagan engineered a major tax cut, but the federal deficit and debt ballooned. Reagan then went on to support specific tax increases–on gasoline, for instance–in a failed attempt to lower the debt. Part of the deficit problem, in spite of his aphorisms, was that Reagan did not cut government spending; instead, the size of the federal government increased significantly under his watch.

The liberals have lost out on the political starting point for what should be an essential discussion: What is the role of government? Government should address a wide range of problems that markets alone are ill-equipped to tackle. Liberals and anti-conservatives, however, have not been good at producing a debate about the basic roles of government and, instead, seem able only to respond to conservative claims.

Al Franken in his book Giant of the Senate, gives an explanation: “Democrats always have a disadvantage in messaging—not because we’re idiots, but because we have complex ideas and, sometimes, a hard time explaining them succinctly. Our bumper stickers always end with ‘continued on next bumper sticker.’” For example, it is easier to proclaim simply that immigrants take jobs than it is to discuss with more nuance that our economy is not a zero-sum game where a job for one is not simply the loss of work for another; how immigrants help grow the economy by buying goods and services; how immigrants pay payroll and incomes taxes; how, as our birthrate declines, immigration is a force for necessary workforce expansion. Yes, no bumper sticker can do that. Democrats are not sparkling sloganeers.

However, there are many opportunities to examine the role of government and the fatuousness of conservative shibboleths. For example, weather tragedies—hurricanes, tornados, floods, and fires—provide an opportunity for such analyses. In the aftermath of natural devastations, someone will complain about price-gouging. That should lead to a discussion of market economics because price-gouging is simply the normal result of free market economics. The extraordinary, sudden demand for goods with a limited supply gives the seller the opportunity to make high profits. Conservatives who believe in unrestrained markets should accept such price-gouging. Interestingly, however, I have never heard any leading conservative who, in other circumstances mouths platitudes about the importance of free markets, defend this high pricing. Instead, what price-gouging could teach is that almost all of us have concerns about our free-market system and believe that it should be–oh, that fearful word–regulated at least some of the time.

The fight for FEMA funds could also be an opportunity for an examination of conservative platitudes. In accordance with their call for a smaller government, conservatives should be opposed to FEMA, and some conservative congressmen and think tanks have indeed proposed a more limited federal role in responding to natural disasters. But those in the affected areas–including conservatives–speak as if getting the Washington money is a right. Although it is never called this, the flood- or hurricane-affected regions see federal disaster assistance as an entitlement. In other circumstances conservatives would rail against such aid as wealth redistribution. Natural disasters and other emergencies do not occur at the same rate throughout the country; some states–Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, for example–are more prone to them than others. Yet Texas takes more funds out of FEMA than it puts in while many other states put more in than they get out. FEMA redistributes wealth by geography.

Another way to look at FEMA, however, is that it is part of a social safety net. People are in need because of a disaster, and we as Americans–and that includes our government–help people in need. As with any aspect of our social safety net, we should seek to lessen the demand for it in the future and seek to make those asking or demanding assistance more responsible for lessening their present and future need. However, as long as we are one country, even though fortune and misfortune do not fall equally upon us, we should aid the unfortunate. Let’s start talking about FEMA as welfare, as wealth redistributor, as part of our social safety net, and tie them into a broader discussion of Americans who might need help from, yes, the government.

More than natural disasters trigger thoughts about effective conservative messaging and its absence from anti-conservatives. With the two-score anniversary of 9/11, I am having many flashbacks to that day and its aftermath. For years my heart raced whenever a plane flew low overhead. I still cannot watch footage from that day or even see on old movie that has the Towers in the background. I remember that when I could return to work after the attacks I would always get a headache as I emerged from the subway facing the wreckage; that the burning plastic smells emitted from the lit ruins made me feel sick at the end of each work day; that I was separated from my family and wanted to see them; that I saw stuff come out of the burning Towers that I hoped were not bodies; that I saw people right after the attacks huddled in doorways a few blocks from the Towers hysterically crying; that I cried on 9/11 and every day for weeks, perhaps months, afterwards; that the sky was a beautiful late summer blue; and that people helped each other. But in all these memories and more, I also think that 9/11 was a lost opportunity for resetting the domestic political dialog.

(concluded September 10)

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