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Trusting the Scorpion: BP, the Legacy of Republican Hypocrisy and Democratic Cowardice

The progressives are up in arms over the oil spill.  Like a scene from Frankenstein, the good citizens are storming the hydrocarbon castle with torches ablaze, and pitchforks held high.

Some demand stricter regulations, some a wiser energy policy, but they're all focused on tarring BP with this heinous crime against nature.  Especially now that Obama is starting to get some blame.  An inordinate amount of energy is being spent on how we can use this event to "message," with the emphasis here on assigning the blame to BP.

It would be nice to get stricter regulations; certainly a wiser energy policy would be good.  But focusing on blaming BP is missing the point.  Of course they cut corners; of course they're sleazy.  It's what they do.

But they can do it only because we let them.  The whole thing is reminiscent of the fable about the scorpion and the frog.  If you've forgotten, it goes like this:

 A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog, afraid of being stung, refuses at first, but when the scorpion points out that if it were to sting the frog,  the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown as well, he relents. Yet when they reach the middle of the river, the scorpion stings him. As they are sinking,  the frog asks why, and the scorpion explains, "I'm a scorpion; it's what we do."

The hydrocarbon castle we would storm is but one building in a vast city as dark as Mordor.

That's why focusing on blaming BP, even in hopes of getting a saner energy policy, is such a waste - it's like worrying about a case of the sniffles (albeit a very bad case) when you've got end stage cancer.  Was Exxon - the mot profitable company in history last year -- not blamed for the "Exxon-Valdez?" Did it change anything?

Here's the grim reality: the oil spill is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem, one that is our fault, because for the last 30 years we've been trusting the scorpion.

The fact is, Reagan had it backwards. Government, it turns out, is often the solution and unconstrained private industry the problem.  Many of us knew this, but few have had the courage to stand up to Reagan's dangerous, but popular, fantasy, then or now. 

Indeed, when the history of the last three decades is written, it will be a story of epic hypocrisy on the part of Republicans, enabled by abject cowardice on the part of Democrats, with consequences that created a legacy far more tragic and irreversible than even this horrendous oil spill.

There may have been a few conservative ideologues who actually believed the small government, magic market mantras spouted by the likes of Reagan, Grover Norquist (I simply want to rduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub) William Kristol and assorted industry-funded think tanks, but they were few and far between. 

The real reason this philosophy spread was because it was politically expedient, it was backed and funded by powerful interests who made campaign contributions, and few had the courage or conviction required to confront a fantasy that told people they didn't have to pay for the services they demanded.

Across our entire economy and society we are now reaping the harvest of that hypocrisy, and the fruits of that cowardice. 

To any remaining acolytes of Reaganism, the track record stands in stark rebuke.

The evidence mounts every day.  The BP oil spill, yes.  But also The Big Branch coal mining disaster; the sub-prime disaster; the AIG and various other Wall Street disasters; the growing income disparity between the rich and the rest of us; a global thermostat set on self-destruct; a globalized economy as volatile as a vial of nitro-glycerin - everywhere you look, you see more proof that the conservative mantra of small government and uber-free markets has completely failed. 

If one examines the record, it's pretty clear that Republicans and conservatives (effectively the same thing) never really cared much about small government.  In fact, government grew rapidly under Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. The only time since Carter that government growth subsided was under Clinton.

Doubt that?  Here's the numbers.

If you rank all Presidents since Nixon by the number of government employees per 1000 citizens, here's what you'll find: Reagan tops the list with the most, and Bush II is next. Clinton, on the other hand, had the smallest government by number of employees.  The story is much the same for deficits: Reagan increased the federal deficit as a per cent of GDP by 10%, Bush I by 13%, and Bush II by an incredible 20%.  In contrast, Clinton lowered it by 10%.

Of course there are lots of ways to slice and dice the statistics, but any honest look at the numbers comes up with the same conclusion - Reagan, Bush I and Bush II talked about small government but presided over dramatic growth in the size of government, while Clinton actually made progress in reducing the size of government. 

And rather than having the courage to actually cut popular services, Republicans cut taxes and raised deficits to continue providing them, while making it virtually inevitable that someone, someday would have to shrink government - hopefully enough to drown it in the bathtub.  Ironically, Democrats - only slightly more interested in delivering good government than amassing power than Republicans are - did most of whatever spending cuts did happen.

So, if small government wasn't really the goal for conservatives, what was? 

Simple: weak government.  Government that couldn't constrain the vaunted private sector - the font of all good things according to conservatives' public pronouncements - the font of campaign contributions in reality as Paul Krugman pointed out in a recent column, and Thomas Frank noted in What's the Matter with Kansas?. 

And while Clinton made real progress in constraining government growth, he signed onto the Conservative notion of eviscerating government.  It was Clinton's economic team, after all, which led the charge to rescind the Glass Steagall Act - the jewel in the crown of financial deregulation, and the source of much of our misery now.  It was Clinton who  ended welfare and proclaimed the era of big government to be over.

It wasn't just Clinton. Democrats quickly became complicit in this epic hypocrisy. They formed the DLC and went after corporate campaign contributions, they triangulated, they became split-the-difference Democrats, adopting much of the conservative playbook, and legitimizing more of it.

Aside from the obvious ethical and moral issues, the problem with this strategy is that when the policy, philosophy or system fails, the triangulator owns a big share of the catastrophes that failure creates.

For example, back to the BP oil disaster.  Just weeks before it occurred, in a classic triangulation, Obama announced that he supported off-shore drilling.  Because he failed to take a stand then, he couldn't avoid taking some of the blame for the spill.  Had he made Republican deregulation an issue and opposed offshore drilling rather than cratering to the drill-baby-drill crazies - had he stood on principle - he wouldn't be in a defensive position, trying to pass off blame and criticism to BP.  Rather he would have made deregulation the issue, and he'd be leading a popular charge against a broken regulatory system and a failed political philosophy, putting conservatives in a defensive position. 

That's right, because of political cowardice and a too-clever-by-a-half strategy, the Obama administration is fending off blame for something Republicans, conservatives, and the drill-baby-drill crowd fought to put in place.

And this is just one example of a dynamic that has dominated politics since Reagan. 

You can't confront Wall Street when you've set up Goldman Sachs South in the US Treasury and the White House, stocking it with the very folks who created the problem.

You can't confront Health Care crazies when you've made back room deals with big Pharma, and preemptively ceded the victory to private industry. 

You can't confront the collapse of the educational system, if you've advocated tax cuts.  Look at California, which was at the vanguard of the tax cutting frenzy.  Their educational system went from number 1 in the country when Reagan took over to number 47, now. 

You can't get out of illegitimate and ill-advised wars when you've given them legitimacy.  Come on.  Does anyone really believe the US has a strategic stake in Afghanistan?  And even if you did, does anyone believe that occupying the hapless country with conventional military forces is the way to deal with it?  Let's face it, we doubled down on this war because Democrats thought it would be the best way to inoculate themselves against the dreaded "soft on defense" epithet.

In fact, Democrats have been so ready to run from name calling it's as if they're wearing track shoes and poised in starting blocks, the better to sprint from their convictions at the first whiff of a meanie. 

They've been so eager for power, that they stopped thinking about why the want it - it became an end, not a means.

If we'd been willing to stand on principle for the last three decades, we might have lost a few elections, but at least the debate would be framed, the battle lines clear.

And when the inevitable failures from the conservative hypocrisy came, Tea-partiers might have been pouring into the streets demanding that the rich pay their fair share of taxes and the corporations quit exploiting humanity and the planet so that a few CEOs might buy an extra 25,000 square foot vacation home in Barbados.  Indeed, they might even be demanding that government fulfill its role as guarantor of a civil society.

Now, instead, no one believes government has a role.

Bottom line: we're not having the debate this country so desperately needs to have because for decades, we've run from that debate, and to do so now would be to expose the full depth of that cowardice.   

That's why watching liberals and progressives falling all over themselves trying to figure out how to fix the blame on BP is such a tragedy. Even if they succeed the root cause of the disaster remains, and far more serious issues go unaddressed.

We are now fording difficult passages - as dangerous as any this country has ever faced - and until we confront the larger conservative failure, we will do so with the scorpion on our collective back. 

The countless failures of Reaganism are laid out like stepping stones across this broad river we must ford. 

We can see, on the other side, shimmering in the distance, the promised land - a land in which citizens run government, not corporations; in which the wealth of our collective endeavors is shared among us all, not ceded to the top 1%; a land in which we treat nature with the care and reverence our very survival demands, not as a spare parts shed and waste pile; a land in which government is the way we come together to meet the great challenges of the 21st Century, not a punch line to a cynical and manipulative speech given by corporate lackeys posing as politicians.

The choice is clear.  We could treat each of the national disasters facing us as discreet entities, in which case we attempt to swim the river with the scorpion on our back.  Or with a little courage and a little integrity, we could confront them as symptoms of the larger failures of conservatism that they are, in which case we simply step across the stones before us to reach the other side.

We have no choice.  Conservatism's failure is complete, the consequences of not confronting that failure too dear.  The time is now; cowardice is no longer an option. All we lack is a leader with the courage to take the first step.

Mr. Obama, will you be that leader?

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