Republicans are seen, and most Republicans see themselves, as the anti-government party. Republican solutions to most of the country’s problems begin with, or at a minimum include, shrinking the size, scope and spending of government — unless you’re discussing the military budget. Democrats, in stark contrast, mostly believe the government can be and has been an instrument of both social justice and economic growth.
Somebody much smarter than I, with a dollop of cynicism, once observed that American voters send pro-government Democrats to Washington to be sure voters get all the benefits and services the federal government offers and that those same voters send anti-tax Republicans to Washington so that they, the voters, will not have to pay for those government services.
An old Irish saying held that the devil was an angel until he started knocking his old hometown. There is no recorded evidence that President Barack Obama has ever heard this line. But he certainly does, especially for a Democrat, spend a lot of time knocking his adopted hometown of Washington — a place he has spent the better part of six years of his life and a couple of billion dollars in order to live in its most prestigious public housing.
To a crowd in Seattle, Obama announced, “It’s good to be outside of Washington.” Nevadans heard him declare: “You know, it’s always a pleasure to get out of Washington. Washington is OK, but it’s nice taking time to talk to Americans of every walk of life outside the nation’s capital.”
Cannon Falls, Minn.: “So I am very pleased to be out of Washington.” Strongsville, Ohio: “Good to be here in the Buckeye State. And it’s even better to be out of Washington for a while.”
Why so eager to leave D.C.? To Asheville, N.C.: “Not much listening” (in Washington), too much “political point-scoring.”
To Racine, Wis.: “But it’s wonderful to be here, and it’s just nice to get out of Washington.” Columbus, Ohio, heard Obama criticize sharply the “kind of game-playing we’ve gotten used to in Washington,” while Denver learned that “a lot of folks have lost confidence in Washington.” So voters don’t much like or trust Washington? Neither, if you listen to what he has said, does their Democratic president.
Who can argue, after Obama became the only U.S. president since hero Dwight David Eisenhower to win a majority of the popular vote in successive national elections, that voters have not been charmed or impressed by Obama’s anti-Washington lyrics?
But missing from such rhetoric is the Democrats’ historic summons to a public sector that abolished slavery, ended racial segregation, saved the Great Lakes and built the world’s greatest higher-education system. Absent is the inspiring call of John Kennedy: “Let the public service be a good and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in an area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years, ‘I served the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.’”
This is about much more than words or quotes. It is about a national mood and spirit that an American president can influence or even inspire. After thousands of Americans, during the New Frontier, volunteered to join the brand-new Peace Corps, skeptics were astonished.
Perhaps the best explanation for that remarkable outpouring was offered by a young woman who became a volunteer: “I’d never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish, because nobody ever asked me to — Kennedy asked.” Will the same be said 50 years from now about Americans who had been inspired to public service — that Obama asked?
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.