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Posturing obstructs era of smart government

Whenever natural disaster strikes, the nation’s governors always have the same response. Where are the Feds? When will help from Washington arrive?

Listen to Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a hero to many conservatives. After Hurricane Irene swamped his state, he praised President Obama for urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to “cut the red tape” and deliver aid quickly.

“I believe that he’s going to be able to get it done,” the governor said of the president, “and I think he deserves great credit for the way FEMA operated in this storm.”

Those are instructive words at a time when another Republican governor, Rick Perry of Texas, is running for president on a very different message. Perry has shot to the front of the GOP field with a promise to “work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.”

Well, Gov. Perry, meet Gov. Christie. Or the millions of Americans on the East Coast who are depending on federal help in the aftermath of Irene. Better yet, remember the citizens of West Texas who were devastated by wildfires last spring. And remember that you pleaded with Washington for disaster relief and were furious when you were turned down.

“I am dismayed that this administration has denied Texans the much-needed assistance they deserve,” Perry declared. “It is not only the obligation of the federal government but its responsibility under law to help its citizens in times of emergency.”

Obligation? Responsibility? How does that square with Perry’s overheated tirades about making Washington “as inconsequential in your life as I can?”

Of course the two views don’t square. What he’s saying is, feel free to hate government, hate taxes, hate regulation. But be first in line when you’re in trouble and need help.

In fact, Perry’s own cotton farm received more than $80,000 in federal subsidies during the 1980s, and he told Texas voters: “I know what would happen to rural areas of Texas if these programs were discontinued. I do not support such an action.” The level of hypocrisy here is simply breathtaking.

We are not saying that Washington has the answer to every problem, or that every federal dollar is wisely spent. Far from it. Liberal orthodoxy is wrong to defend every program or benefit or regulation ever passed. One glaring example: It makes complete sense to reduce the annual increase in future Social Security payments and preserve the solvency of the system. Yet most lefties refuse even to discuss the issue.

The result has been a stupid and sterile debate between extremes: good versus evil, government as the answer versus government as the problem. Both approaches are oversimplified, and most voters know that. What they want is value for their hard-earned tax dollars, and in responding so well to Irene, FEMA showed that “efficient bureaucracy” is not an oxymoron.

But the anti-government theology gripping the Republican Party today makes any conversation about public policy virtually impossible. Just ask Mitt Romney, who gets excoriated for expanding health insurance coverage when he was governor of Massachusetts. Or former Sen. Bob Bennett, who was ousted by fellow Republicans in Utah last year because he supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), better known as the “bank bailout.”

Never mind that the bill was proposed and signed by that raging liberal George W. Bush. Or that most economists agree with Alan Blinder of Princeton when he told The Washington Post that “things would have been horribly worse for everybody” without TARP.

In Rick Perry’s Republican Party, government spending is always bad (except, apparently, on defense or farm subsidies), so TARP had to be wrong — no matter what the facts say. The same with Obama’s $700 billion package to stimulate the economy. Just because unemployment remains dreadfully high does not mean the stimulus failed.

Ezra Klein of the Post surveyed nine independent studies assessing the impact of the stimulus. Six found a “significant, positive effect on employment and growth,” while three were inconclusive or critical. The Congressional Budget Office concluded that the program created between 1.6 million and 4.6 million jobs. Perry’s Texas received $28 billion, fueling a sharp increase in public-sector employment. And yet he insisted this week that, as president, he would never support a stimulus measure. That’s both irresponsible and ignorant.

The era of Big Government might be over, but instead of Small Government, what the voters really want is Smart Government. They also want more honesty and less hypocrisy from their leaders.