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.

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

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

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

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

Mr. Obama, will you be that leader?

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