President Obama has spoken at two memorial services in just over a week — one for victims of the Boston Marathon attack and one for those who died in the chemical plant explosions in West, Texas. In both speeches, he focused on victims and survivors.
But other Democrats are using these events to talk about another subject — the role of government.
The day after the Boston explosions, while thousands of investigators were searching for evidence, retired Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts told MSNBC that while much was still unknown, he wanted to “talk about what we do know.”
“Let’s be thankful that we have spent a lot of tax money to build up the capacity to do this,” he said, arguing that the police, FBI agents and others in Boston make a strong case for what is often derided as “big government.”
“It’s very fashionable these days for people in my former line of work to brag about how they cut government, reduced government,” he added. “Well, I’m glad that they weren’t as successful as they wanted to be.”
Some liberals made a related argument when an explosion and fire killed a dozen people in Texas. They said government regulations exist to prevent those kinds of disasters from happening.
“The point is government actually does something, and this makes it very concrete,” says Dean Baker, who directs the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. “It’s the job of government inspectors to look into, certainly, fertilizer [factories] — we know these are dangerous places — to look at them and make sure that companies are following good safety procedures, so that you don’t get explosions like that.”
People who want smaller government say liberals are reaching the wrong conclusions from these events.
“We always have to be careful about trying to childproof the country,” says James Carafano, a security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s always bad to make public policy off a single tragedy — particularly when you’re talking with chemical facilities. If your answer is, ‘I never want to have a chemical fire or incident,’ then you might as well not have a chemical industry.”
And conservatives argue that while government regulations might prevent some disasters, they also impose a real burden on innocent people and businesses every day. Onkar Ghate with the Ayn Rand Institute says regulations add to overhead.
“They impose an enormous cost on companies and all individual Americans of the amount of paperwork and regulations that you have to go through when you’re not doing anything wrong,” Ghate says.
These disagreements about the role and size of government are as old as the country. They were a central issue in last year’s presidential campaign. Republican Mitt Romney often said that if elected, he would unshackle American business by getting government out of the way.
Obama often says “the government is us” — the schools, roads and research centers that help the country thrive.
“As a nation, we’ve always come together through our government to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed,” he said in Osawatomie, Kan., late in 2011.
This ideological split came into focus again this week as Congress revisited the spending cuts known as the sequester. Lawmakers created these cuts as part of an effort to shrink the government.
This week, people got upset when air traffic controller furloughs led to long flight delays.
So Congress undid that part of those cuts Friday. An earlier exception had been made for meat inspectors as well.
“We have been fed a narrative or an argument or a story,” says Neera Tanden with the progressive Center for American Progress, “that the government can’t do anything right. And what’s been interesting about the sequester is that people are beginning to pay attention to the fact that there are ways in which the government has a positive role, and we don’t like that role to be taken away.”
Polls consistently show that people want less government spending. Polls also show that people don’t want the government to cut back on specific services.
The tug-of-war between the parties is all about reconciling these two deeply held, mutually exclusive desires.