The Republican Party is on a roll right now, controlling the high ground in political debates from Washington to state capitals across the US.
Some of their issues — including the outsized Federal deficit and concerns about the size of government — have gained real traction in the public zeitgeist.
And there is absolutely no doubt that we need at least one political party right now that is focused on those questions.
But shrinking government is a tough, complicated business and too often the GOP is throwing out full-bore nonsense instead of coherent policy ideas.
A case in point is Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s recent claim that Medicaid recipients in his state are pulling up “at the pharmacy window in a BMW and say[ing] they can’t afford their co-payment.”
Barbour’s “welfare queen” style rhetoric matches the goofy notion offered up by many conservatives that the reason people aren’t working in the current economy is that they just aren’t motivated enough.
That was the argument put forward last year by the Heritage Foundation when they advocated for curtailing jobless benefits for millions of laid-off workers.
“As long as you’ve got those insurance payments coming in, people become more selective about the jobs they’re willing to take,” said James Sherk, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
“It’s not meant to be or designed to be a handout or a welfare program; it’s designed to be an insurance program.”
This is, in a nutshell, ludicrous.
The vast, overwhelming majority of people who resort to programs like Medicaid and unemployment insurance do so because it’s their only option.
Yes, there is waste, fraud and abuse. And we should weed it out whenever and wherever possible.
But as the Washington Post points out, Mississippi only grants Medicaid benefits to people earning around $8,000 a year. Not a lot of BMW drivers in that demographic.
(For the record, Gov. Barbour and his staff were unable to provide any factual basis for his claim about rich people abusing his state’s Medicaid system.)
In order for Republicans to make smart decisions about where and how to cut government, they first need to look honestly and rationally at the reasons people use government.
The current ideological message being echoed by some of the conservative movement’s best and brightest is that social safety net programs are only for shirkers and bums.
(Last year, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson caught flak for calling Social Security “a milk cow with 310 million tits.”)
That’s not only insulting, it’s also factually wrong. Social Security is an incredibly efficient program, one which all but ended the epidemic of elderly poverty in America.
The vast majority of our citizens support Social Security — and Medicaid, for that matter — not because we are lazy, government-trough-sucking socialists, but because we want government to play some role in solving big problems.
The truth is that we are going to have to trim some of these programs, and make them more efficient, in order to bring government spending back into line with tax revenues.
But unless Republicans look at the problem factually and rationally, it’s hard to see how they can produce the smart, careful leadrship that the fiscal crisis demands.