NUVO at 25: Dan Carpenter


By Dan Carpenter

Back in the day, a Republican president pleased tree-huggers, poor folks and the elderly by helping give us food stamps and the Environmental Protection Agency and by advocating national health insurance.

Back in the day, a Republican Indiana governor pleased the teachers' union by building school reform not on testing and privatization but on lowered class size.

Back in the day, a Republican Indianapolis mayor displeased the Reagan administration by fighting for affirmative action in public safety hiring, inviting derision from Reagan's black civil rights chief.

Imagine that today - bold, big-government action, requiring heavy public investment, venturing partnership with powerful rival forces, risking alienation from natural allies, and placing pragmatic need ahead of partisan posturing and ideological regimentation.

From the Party of No?

For the landmark efforts of Richard Nixon, Robert Orr and William Hudnut, I'm hearing a big Hell No.

For the record, I voted for none of these men and I harbor especially scant love for Tricky Dick, perpetrator of protracted and secret wars in Southeast Asia, saboteur of Latin American democracy, strategic stoker of racial hatred in the United States, arch-villain of Watergate and the political prostitution of government that it represented.

But when he was good, he was astonishing. Nixon, on his occasional breaks from screwing real and perceived personal enemies, showed a remarkably bias-free ability to take a managerial idea and run with it - or at least to recognize its momentum and get on board.

The EPA came along when writers such as Rachel Carson were telling apocalyptic truth and urban rivers were catching fire; bad for babies, bad for business. Food stamps were a farm subsidy as well as a no-brainer weapon in the new and compelling war on poverty. Medicare, that demon of socialized medicine, had quickly shape-shifted into a guardian angel of the elderly, a boon to doctors, a crackerjack Republican problem-solver.

You can say today that the essentials haven't changed. The daring thinking has been vindicated, the justifications remain, the man on the right was right.

It's true as well of Orr's A-Plus program, which tackled the 800-pound gorilla of too many kids with too many needs in our classrooms. It's true of diversity in city hiring, which Hudnut and his visionary predecessor Richard Lugar knew to be vital to Uni-Gov's world-class aspirations as well as a matter of simple justice.

Republicans. Who does these things any more? Food stamps? A partisan weapon wielded with appalling indifference to the human collateral damage. National health care? They pray it won't go, and pour sand in the gas tank to make sure. Government oversight of air, water and soil quality? Economics and health are the bottom-line reasons for the EPA, yet the GOP can only chant of "job-killing regulation."

Class size? Today's corporate-owned GOP (and Democrat) "reformers" won't even let you go there. An "excuse." Like poverty. Like any issue in education that might imply the need for spending by the world's wealthiest nation.

More minority and female police and firefighters? What police and firefighters? In defense of Greg Ballard, this Republican mayor gets precious little help from his friends in the Statehouse - financially, that is. Politically, they aggrandize him every chance they get. So it goes, a long way from back in the day.

To borrow from Ronald Reagan, who pretty much started the turnaround that all of us, Republican and Democrat and Otherwise, have to live with, let us ask: Are you better off?

Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, contributor to Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of "Indiana Out Loud."


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