At a time when nations that tax, spend, regulate and invest more consistently outstrip the United States in many measures of progress, leading Republicans speak only of smashing government and ending vital programs. In this constantly escalating rhetorical game, it became inevitable that one of them would eventually expose the emptiness of this vainglorious display. And it was unsurprising that the ultimate faker would turn to be Rick Perry.
The dim demagogue could scarcely contain himself during the CNBC debate last Wednesday night as he turned to Ron Paul, his fellow Texan whose sincere hatred of government verges on anarchism, saying: "I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education and the — what's the third one there? Let's see."
With the world watching, he literally didn't know what he was talking about. And from there it only got worse.
Grinning and groping for an answer, Perry flailed embarrassingly until Paul helpfully suggested "EPA?" But for some reason that didn't satisfy Perry, who smirked as if someone was trying to trick him into giving the wrong response. "The third agency of government I would — I would do away with, Education, the ..." For painful moments, he kept digging.
"Commerce and, let's see," said Perry at last. "I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops." Later, he identified the Department of Energy as the third agency he would eliminate. (And as Think Progress blogger Matt Yglesias quickly suggested in a tweet, that answer may well mean he also has no idea what the DOE actually does, such as providing subsidies to the nuclear and coal industries and overseeing atomic weapons research and development.)
"I stepped in it," he told reporters immediately following the debate, and observers across the ideological landscape agreed. But by morning, the Texas governor was offering the same kind of excuse he must have used when he got D's in school. There are just too many federal agencies, he explained to NBC's Ann Curry, who might have retorted that there are only 15 Cabinet departments.
What was revealed by Perry's inability to regurgitate coherently his little blurt about eliminating whole departments of government — aside from proving one more time that he is unfit for campaigning and public office? Perhaps what it shows is how little he actually thinks before delivering these canned rants.
But of course the Texas governor isn't alone in his ignorance — or his dissembling.
Mitt Romney, whose sole memorable achievement as governor of Massachusetts was the passage of a health plan he now mostly disowns, said that what America needs is a "market-based" medical system, relying on "health savings accounts" to pay for care. We need that, he said, because as a nation we now spend 18 percent of gross domestic product annually on health care, while our competitors spend 12 percent or less.
Those figures are roughly correct — but to say that such comparisons prove the superiority of the market over the public sector is simply a lie. France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Scandinavian countries all use different mechanisms to achieve excellent results at reasonable cost, but none of them depend more on the private sector than the United States, and all rely on a combination of public financing, strict regulation and universal mandated coverage to achieve those goals. As Romney surely knows, because while he panders like all the other Republicans, he isn't stupid.
What is very stupid, as former president Bill Clinton pointedly demonstrates in his new book, "Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy," is the constant, mindless denigration of government indulged by the Republicans.
The facts are simple enough even for the average tea party voter to understand: The countries that tax more, spend more and regulate more than the United States are mostly doing better than we are, whether measured by educational attainment, social and economic mobility, income equality, employment growth or infrastructure quality. They use market incentives and private sector partnerships more intelligently than we do, too — because they know that a strong, competent government fosters enterprise without allowing corporate domination. And despite their current crisis in the eurozone, they will emerge from the recession with those strengths intact.
But then again, European conservative parties would never nominate the likes of Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul for public office at any level. No doubt they find the GOP debates bleakly amusing in these dark times. It's the only attitude that makes watching tolerable.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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