The Bush years have been a miserable time for advocates of smaller government. So why is Fred Smith, the irrepressible president of the anti-government, pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, smiling? In a word: Katrina.
Not the hurricane—the political storm. Smith grew up near New Orleans. His brother's home there was swamped. His sister, west of the city, found herself hosting nine refugees. But what cheers Smith is President Bush's now-notorious praise for Michael Brown, the embattled (and now former) head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
"It was almost like he couldn't have possibly said that," Smith said in a recent interview. "If that's what government thought a good job was, then frankly, we'd prefer a worse job done by anyone else."
Since the late 1990s, anger at Big Government has been on the political back burner, but Smith thinks the government's bungling response to Katrina—and its (as he expects) soon-to-be-bungled response to its bungled response—will change that. "You can have good government, or you can have Big Government," Smith says, "but you can't have good Big Government. That argument is growing dramatically, and I think Katrina is going to make it grow more."
On its face, Smith's ebullience seems odd. The Katrina aftermath looks like the next in a series of Bush-era growth spurts for government, following hard upon the Iraq war, the Medicare prescription drug program, and the No Child Left Behind Act. On Capitol Hill, leaders of both parties have left little doubt that they will spend what it takes, and probably more, to make waterlogged Katrina victims—and storm-damaged politicians—whole. Interest groups are circling hungrily. No wonder The Washington Post headlined recently, "Katrina Ushers in Return of Big Government."
So which way will the politics play? Will Katrina undermine government's credibility or enhance government's power? To judge by experience, the answer may be: both.
The chart below graphs the public's answer to a perennial polling question, used since 1958 as a barometer of confidence in the federal government: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right—just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?" The data are from polls by CBS News and The New York Times.
In the Eisenhower and Kennedy years (not shown in the chart), about three-fourths of the public said they trusted Washington "always" or "most of the time," but Vietnam, Watergate, and inflation led to the collapse in confidence that has come to define modern politics. In the mid-1970s, when the chart begins, confidence was in the 30s and falling.
The decades since then divide, albeit not neatly, into four periods. The Reagan years saw confidence in government both rise and stabilize. The Bush 41 and early Clinton periods saw confidence plummet (apart from a short-lived spike following the 1991 Persian Gulf War). Beginning in the mid-1990s, the trend turned around, with public confidence rising to Reagan-era levels before surging in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when people rallied to the government. The years since then have brought decline, recently back into the doldrums of the 30 percent range.
Many vectors shape the trends. The early-1990s numbers, for example, must have been affected by the recession of that period, and the late-1990s numbers by the economic boom. Still, it is striking that, going all the way back to the 1960s, a rough counterpoint emerges: The more ambitious Washington becomes, the lower the public's confidence in it.
Ike led cautiously and from the center. JFK did the same, despite his soaring rhetoric. It was when Washington set out to build a "Great Society" that the public's mood began to sour, a trend that President Nixon's cynicism and President Carter's fecklessness did nothing to reverse.
Ironically, it was the anti-government Reagan who, by succeeding better at doing less, restored confidence in Washington. The government's job, he proclaimed, is not to solve everybody's problems, but to face down the Soviets and stop inflating the currency, both of which he did. After ebbing under the first President Bush, confidence reached its nadir as Clinton and a Democratic Congress undertook a grandiose effort to reform health care.
In 1995, the Republicans took over Congress. They checked Clinton's liberal tendencies but overreached in the opposite direction. In April of 1995, an anti-government militant bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. "Anger at Washington Cools in Aftermath of Bombing," reported The Washington Post, releasing a poll showing that satisfaction with the federal government had "shot up" and that the number of people describing themselves as angry at the government had fallen from 16 to 9 percent.
The new mood held. In January of 1996, Clinton declared, "The era of Big Government is over." Budget surpluses replaced deficits; micro-initiatives replaced grand new entitlements; in Bosnia and Kosovo, even war was miniaturized. James Madison, in Federalist 51, said, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," and in divided Washington, an ambitious Democratic president and an equally ambitious Republican Congress fought to a draw. As if in relief, the public's confidence in Washington rose. Though the public remained cynical about government, anger at government receded to the political byways. From the public's point of view, less was more.
The George W. Bush years have brought bigness back to government. The administration launched a big war, created a big drug entitlement, passed big tax cuts, ran up big deficits, and gave Washington a big new role in education. As the post-9/11 rally subsided, confidence in Washington drooped toward pre-Reagan levels. Then came the big hurricane.
"Katrina Shakes Confidence," summarized a CBS News poll. In the public's mind, the storm was only the first of two disasters; government's poor performance was the second. The public took note that Wal-Mart responded in hours while Washington seemed to take days, and that insurance adjusters seemed to arrive before the National Guard. In a September poll by Zogby International, 86 percent of the public rated private charities' response to the hurricane as good or excellent; only a third said the same of the government.
If Washington's rebuilding efforts go well, that might, in principle, stabilize or restore confidence in Washington; but Smith, for one, has no worries on that score. "Louisiana has the ability to corrupt any program, and it certainly has the capacity to take millions of dollars and turn it to waste," he says. Air-dropping money will work no better in Louisiana than it does in developing countries, he predicts.
Tales of waste, abuse, and ineptitude have already surfaced, and the media are digging hard. (On September 18, the lead story in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel excoriated "a national disaster-response system that for years has been fraught with waste and fraud.") Reports that the government will erect quasi-permanent trailer cities and subsidize resettlement in flood-prone areas suggest that billions may be spent counterproductively.
It is too early to call Katrina a watershed (pardon the expression) in Americans' attitude toward government. But it is not too early to imagine that Katrina may be to this decade what the Oklahoma City bombing was to the last: a shock that both reveals and reinforces a sea change (again, pardon the expression) in public opinion.