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GOP, don't undermine government

By Sally Kohn
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ebola response highlights danger of fixation on austerity and cuts, says Sally Kohn
  • A government gasping for air isn't in a position to help out in crises, Kohn says
  • Once upon a time, it was clear that government could actually make our lives better, she says

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it. After all, anti-government rhetoric and anti-tax austerity have real-life consequences -- consequences playing out at this very moment in the public health response to Ebola.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

Unfortunately, Republicans have been attacking for decades. In his memoir, former President Richard Nixon wrote that the "institutions" of government had to be either "reformed, replaced or circumvented." Former President Ronald Reagan, for his part, said: "Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other."

Such conceptual attacks on government by conservatives have gone hand in hand with a political agenda of austerity, cloaking anti-government sentiment in the language of "deficit reduction" in order to rationalize cutting spending. And while both parties jumped on the austerity bandwagon, including President Barack Obama, conservatives birthed and raised the idea from conception.

As Thomas Edsall wrote in the New York Times, "The politics of austerity are inherently favorable to conservatives and inhospitable to liberals." Specifically, while both parties contributed to an overall cut in spending over the past decade, when accounting for inflation, for the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the anti-government austerity politics behind such cuts are wholly a reflection and manifestation of conservative ideology.

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At the same time, taxes are habitually attacked by conservative politicians and activists as wasteful, unnecessary -- even offensive -- to the American people. They call it "punishing success" rather than providing for the common good and the defense of others less successful. Over a decade ago, the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist famously declared, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Well, Mr. Norquist, a government gasping for air isn't exactly in the best position to protect us when we need it. Conservatives have been cheering for the failure of government all along. If it fails us now, make no mistake about it — conservatives are getting exactly what they hoped for.

The fascinating thing is that some Republicans will insist that, in spite of all their budget cuts and the fact that the federal deficit is at its lowest point in six years, government is still too big. They argue that if the government isn't handling the Ebola situation well, it's because government is too large, or its priorities are misplaced.

Just look at the narrative being spread by conservative outlets and tweeters that the National Institutes of Health might have come up with an Ebola vaccine by now had it not been spending money on research about why lesbians are generally more obese than gay men. Of course, they ignore the inconvenient context: That study is only 0.08% of the much larger amount the NIH spends researching obesity in general — and obesity remains a greater threat to most Americans' health than Ebola.

To take another example, Republicans have spent the last several years condemning the role of government in health care. Now they're demanding government step up and play an intensified role. Yet consider that Thomas Eric Duncan showed up at a Dallas hospital with symptoms of Ebola, but was turned away with just antibiotics and some Tylenol. He didn't have health insurance. But surely if this outbreak teaches us anything, it is that our health depends on everyone have access to affordable, quality medical care. True, the CDC needs to revise its guidelines and procedures for Ebola. But in Dallas we saw very clearly that a private health system won't be able to save us. That's why it's called public health.

In an op-ed for CNN, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wrote that "many Americans lack confidence in our government's ability to effectively confront crises." If so, that is in no small part because Republicans like Rubio have systematically undermined that confidence.

Of course a nation that has for decades been fed the message "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem," is now wary of government playing a greater role in trying to assist. Yet once upon a time, it was clear that government could actually make our lives better -- from post-recession programs that invested in American jobs and infrastructure, to laws that helped returning veterans go to college and afford homes.

Sadly, for the past generation or so, Republicans have attacked the very idea of government while implementing policies that erode its effectiveness, making their prophecies of government failure self-fulfilling.

It is only when something like Ebola happens that Americans realize how much we actually need government to work on our behalf. But if that is to happen, it requires not just the resources, but lawmakers acting in good faith. If we want government to succeed when we need it, stop setting it up to fail.

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