Opinion Forum

The overdue death of a cliche

Alan Ginsburg, a historian friend of mine, pointed out that it’s been some time now since we have heard one of the most previously oft-repeated Republican applause lines — the candidate’s or officeholder’s solemn pledge “to run government like a business.”

The reasons are obvious why this cliché has disappeared. The villains in American politics have in a single generation gone from “welfare queens in designer jeans” to “corporate welfare kings in chauffered limos,” from the public spotlight on “the deserving poor” to public outrage against “the undeserving rich.”

You won’t hear many GOP politicians today quoting Republican presidents who urged, “Less government in business and more business in government” (Warren Harding), or asserted that “the business of America is business” (Calvin Coolidge).

The inconsistencies of the business world and its partisan apologists have been monumental. When profits were sky-high, corporate chiefs and the office-seekers whom they underwrote relentlessly extolled the genius of private enterprise and the untold damage any government regulation could do to it. But when profits go so far south that all the ink is red, business sings a much different tune. “Public-private partnerships “ (aka bailouts) are not only inspired, but imperative.

If in fact the decision were made “to run government like a business,” which particular business would be the best model? Merrill Lynch or Bank of America? How about JPMorgan or Goldman Sachs? Citigroup could be a possibility, and please give some consideration to Wells Fargo, General Motors and Chrysler.

Enron is probably not the role model we’re looking for. Nor is Lehman Brothers or even WorldCom. Or maybe one of those defense contractors that, we learned this week, have piled up cost overruns on weapons programs of $296 billion.

Actually, in this very century we voters did elect our first president with a master’s degree in business administration. George W. Bush holds an envied MBA from the prestigious Harvard Business School. His commitment to bringing business principles to the running of government was best encapsulated in these words he spoke on Nov. 2, 2000: “They want the federal government controlling Social Security like it’s some kind of federal program.”

Bush’s oval office successor, President Barack Obama, is at least hourly accused by somebody with a microphone of being the architect and engineer of a grand scheme to “socialize” the United States. The truth is that the shyster bankers and the corporate criminals have done more to sabotage public trust and confidence in American business and unfettered free enterprise than all the liberal professors, journalists and populists in shoe leather. The plunderers and profiteers themselves, along with their enablers in public office, are solely responsible for today’s real and widespread outrage against CEOs and their co-conspirators now abroad in the nation.

In his second inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke these still-timely words: “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”

You can be sure that no serious Republican (or Democratic) 2010 congressional candidate will run on a promise to make Washington “run the federal government like a business.” Not if she wants to win, that is.