In the Arena

Senator Government V. Joe the Plumber

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I’ll have more to say about the debate in my print column, which releases later today. But I did want to say a few things about my colleagues–in general, no names–and the coverage of the campaign this year.

Pundits tend to be a lagging indicator. This is particularly true at the end of a political pendulum swing. We’ve been conditioned by thirty years of certain arguments working–and John McCain made most of them last night against Barack Obama: you’re going to raise our taxes, you’re going to spend more money, you want to negotiate with bad guys, you’re associated somehow–the associations have gotten more tenuous over time–with countercultural and unAmerican activities.

Again, these arguments have “worked” for a long time. The Democrats who got themselves elected President during most of my career were those most successful at playing defense: No, no, I’m not going to do any of those things! And so the first reaction of more than a few talking heads last night was that McCain had done better, maybe even won, because he had made those arguments more successfully than he had in the first two debates. I disagreed, even before the focus groups and snap polls rendered their verdict: I thought McCain was near-incomprehensible when talking about policy, locked in the coffin of conservative thinking and punditry. He spoke in Reagan-era shorthand. He thought that merely invoking the magic words “spread the wealth” and “class warfare” he could neutralize Obama.

But those words and phrases seem anachronistic, almost vestigial now. Indeed, they have become every bit as toxic as Democratic social activist proposals–government-regulated and subsidized health care, for example–used to be. We have had 30 years of class warfare, in which the wealthy strip-mined the middle class. The wealth has been “spread” upward. The era when Democrats could only elect Presidents from the south, who essentially promised to take the harsh edge off of conservatism, is over. Barack Obama is the most unapologetic advocate of government activism since Lyndon Johnson–which is not to say that his brand of activism will be the same as Johnson’s (we’ve learned a lot about the perils of bureacracy and the value of market incentives since then)–and he seems to be giving the public exactly what it wants this year. Who knows? Maybe even the word “liberal” can now be uttered in mixed company again.

Journalism is, naturally, about the past. We are much better at reporting things that have happened than in predicting the future. We never seem so foolish or obnoxious, especially on TV, as when we accede to the constant demand for crystal-balling. But the obvious danger inherent in journalism is that we tend to get trapped in the assumptions of the past. Too often this year, my colleagues–especially those who are older than me, but also my fellow baby boomers–have seemed a bit moldy in our questioning of politicians: What are you going to do about budget deficits? What are you going to do about entitlement programs?

These are valid questions, but less relevant in a financial crisis that will probably lead to a severe recession–and especially after 30 years of government neglect of its basic responsibilities. We need to spend money now to create jobs, to keep up with the rest of the world on alternative energy and high-tech infrastructure…Oh, and by the way, if government activism is now back on the table, we can begin to talk about the real answers to our entitlement problems: Medicare and medicaid can only be solved when they’re included in a comprehensive, regulated and managed universal health insurance system.

The point is, this is a very good year to be Senator Government. Ronald Reagan used to say that the most frightening nine words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” That is no longer true. This year, the most frightening eight words are “I’m John McCain and I approved this message.”

Update: My print column. Wish I’d thought up the “I’m John McCain…” line last night.

And more: A Klein consensus.