By Bruce Bendinger

bendingerLet’s get a football coach who hates football. That’s right, let’s get a football coach who doesn’t think much of football. Couldn’t be worse. Or maybe it could.

Well then, maybe your church would like a minister who thinks we need less religion? Does that work for you? Sound crazy? Well it is.

You’re starting to understand why today’s Republican Party is in a bit of a quandary.

Because even if you like the things Republicans are supposed to believe in – free enterprise, frugal government, a strong defense, lower taxes – my guess is you’re more than a little bothered by what actually happens when today’s Republicans are put in charge: Growth in government with little point or purpose – much less fiscal responsibility. A stupid and expensive invasion of Iraq that  turns our young soldiers into targets riding around in inadequately armored cars.  Oh yeah, and an exploding deficit that comes from cutting taxes while increasing expenditures. What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s the sort of thing Republicans like to blame on Democrats, except it happened when George Bush was in the White House and Republicans controlled both the House and Senate in Congress. OK, let’s go back to the football coach metaphor. Ready?

Win One For The Gipper

It all began with The Gipper – Ronald Reagan – a labor union president (the Screen Actors Guild, you can look it up) who was transformed into a conservative Republican. Reagan set out on a mission –– to get even with the US government. He achieved success beyond his wildest dreams. Mission? Get even? What do I mean by that?

Well, back in the day, during an early experiment with “progressive” taxation, America had marginal tax rates that ran as high as 90 percent. 90 percent of your income? You bet. Most rich folks were smart enough to avoid those brackets, but Reagan, a not-very-sophisticated movie star walked smack dab into that black hole in the tax code. Wham! The Gipper got hammered and thrown for a big loss. He was pissed.

And who could blame him? His movie star days behind him, he had a tough road ahead.

Fortunately, his brother was an ad man. Neal Reagan, a West Coast ad exec, did what a good brother does. He got Ronnie a job as the host of Death Valley Days. One thing led to another, notably an even better job and a better salary hosting GE Theater, and the steady work delivered a steady paycheck – until Reagan couldn’t keep his lip buttoned about big government and the TVA. But that’s another story.

Now don’t let Reagan’s easy-going manner and naps fool you. He was a hard worker. He combined his acting skills, his work habits, and his Irish anger to build a powerful political persona that led him to the California governorship. He used sure-fire crowd-pleasing laugh lines like “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” They came from his heart… and from his pocketbook . . . and he parlayed that passion into the presidency. But the growth of his philosophy had within it the seeds of destruction for the Republican Party.

Reagan got his revenge – but something else came in on his coattails.

I Hate Government. Vote for Me.

The Republican Party gradually evolved from a mix of progressive and conservative voices (remember Nelson Rockefeller, Chuck Percy, and Ed Brooke?) to a bunch of pols running against the government they were elected to lead. See where this is going? Now we’re getting to the part about the football coach who hates football. This is not the person you want running the team.

Sure, too much government can be a bad thing. So can too little. (If you don’t believe me, go visit Somalia.) And I think we can agree that a 90 percent tax rate goes past progressive into something else entirely. (Sweden maybe.) So it’s easy to understand why Ronald Reagan was honestly angry and passionate about his crusade. But anger is no substitute for judgment.

After eight years watching Bush run a “government is a bad thing” kind of government, my none-too-subtle conclusion is that when you elect people who think government is a bad thing, that’s exactly what you get. Sure, we can always use a few naysayers. No problem. Put ‘em on the cost-control committee so they can track down the $800 screwdrivers. But if you don’t believe that government can actually do a few good things, you’ve got no business running the government.

At its heart, thinking “government is a bad thing ” never has a happy ending. Because when you hate what you’re supposed to be doing, the unhappy fact is . . . you’re no damn good at it.

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