All the leading Republican presidential contenders except Jon Huntsman are denouncing government, with high vituperation. Yet all have spent some to most of their adult lives as office-holders, enjoying the perquisites of government and pocketing some of the public spending they say they oppose.
This a bit like a used-car salesman claiming to be a consumer crusader or a high-class madam denouncing Internet porn. Why does anyone believe politicians who shake their fists against government while comfortably ensconced as government insiders?
* Rick Perry, the putative Republican frontrunner. After college he joined the Air Force – an admirable form of service, and also a secure government job. Afterward, he spent seven years in cotton farming, where federal price supports insulate growers against free-market competition. Since then, Perry has been a government employee: first in the Texas state legislature, then as Texas Agriculture Commissioner, then lieutenant governor, then governor of Texas. Now Perry is campaigning for a federal job with a $400,000 salary and very substantial subsidized lifetime benefits.
* Michele Bachmann. After graduating from law school, she worked as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, a secure government job. Then she spent about a decade raising children. Since 2000, she has been a public official, first in the Minnesota state Senate, now in the U.S. House of Representatives.
* Newt Gingrich. After graduating from college, he worked as a lecturer at two publicly funded universities, then became a member of the House of Representatives for two decades. Since 1999 he’s more-or-less been a business person. But most of his adult life was spent on the public payroll.
* Ron Paul was a flight surgeon — first for the United States Air Force for two years and then for the National Guard for three years. He then spent eight years in private medical practice (obstetrics and gynecology). He was elected to the House of Representatives, then left briefly to work as an investment advisor. Paul quickly fled the private sector and came back to Congress. Since 1997, he has been a U.S. government employee in a secure congressional seat.
* Of other Republican candidates declared or expected, Sarah Palin worked as a sportscaster before becoming a city official, then a mayor, then governor of Alaska. After law school, Rick Santorum was in private practice for four years before being elected to the House of Representatives and then to the Senate, spending 17 years in Congress. Jon Huntsman has spent much of his life as a government official, but with Huntsman there is no issue because he does not use anti-government invective.
* Mitt Romney is the sole prominent contender for the Republican nomination who has spent most of his adult life in private enterprise. Herman Cain is the sole Republican presidential candidate who has never been on the public payroll — though not for lack of trying. Since 2000, Cain has run repeatedly for office.
So the Republican field is chock with people who say government and government spending are objectionable – after first ensuring they personally benefit from money forcibly extracted from taxpayers’ pockets.
At the risk of quoting Al Sharpton, let me quote Al Sharpton: “Fundamentally, life is a hustle.” Politicians who denounce government, while craving for themselves its benefits, are engaged in a hustle. It’s a hustle that seems to have an appeal. Why?
One reason may be that there’s a sucker born every minute. Voters who say they are angry about government nevertheless are impressed with office-holders who sweep into meetings surrounded by bodyguards, and who have – or at least, pretend they have – tremendous power. You’d expect a true outsider to make the best case against government. Instead, voters seem to pay more attention to anti-government pronouncements from insiders.
Another reason may be that voters want to cover their bases by listening to anti-government vitriol, then reelect incumbents – even though, if it’s true that government is terrible, incumbents are to blame. The latest polls show just 12 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a good job. Yet it’s likely that the overwhelming majority of members of Congress will be reelected.
But there may be a larger dynamic – that voters, not candidates, are the biggest hypocrites.
Suzanne Mettler, author of the terrific, and terrifically important, new book The Submerged State, points out that in a 2008 Cornell Survey Research poll, 57 percent of Americans denied they had ever benefitted from any “government social program.” But then asked specifically if they had used student loans, the mortgage-interest deduction, Social Security and other common government social programs, it turned out almost every one of them had.
The Republican presidential candidates who denounce government, yet enjoy cushy government jobs, reflect the two-faced nature of much of the electorate. Many voters want to huff and puff about how they hate government, all the while drawing government benefits. Their concerns are reflected by candidates who denounce government while being on its dole.