BARONE: Must government be a ‘big, waddling, sluggish beast’?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., presides over House passage of President Joe Biden's expansive social and environment bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Itinerant policy journalist Ezra Klein, now with the New York Times, has highlighted something interesting about the Biden Democrats’ now-defunct Build Back Better package — something beyond its huge cost (trillions) and its failure to get majority support in the Democratic Congress, just like the single-payer health-care bill that recently failed to pass in California’s Democratic supermajority legislature. 

The Democrats’ major problem, Klein argues, is that they’re too un-ambitious, proposing only “a grab-bag of longstanding Democratic proposals” that mostly seek to close the “gaps” between the “social insurance options” of “any Western European nation.” 

He might have added that some of these nations — Sweden in the 1990s and Germany in the 2000s, for example — have cut back sharply on these policies. The models he and others cite most often are small, Scandinavian and lightly populated. Sweden, with around 10 million people, is about the size of Michigan, while Norway, Denmark and Finland, with about 5.5 million each, are about the size of Wisconsin and Minnesota. 

Laced through Klein’s 2,104-word article is a nostalgia for the huge governmental projects of the New Deal and World War II. He wants government to seek grander goals — “reinvigorate American semiconductor manufacturing, rebuild critical supply chains, finance regional innovation hubs across the country” — even if it doesn’t seem capable of attaining them. 

Klein deftly avoids mentioning one recent government initiative that achieved its intended results: the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, which produced COVID vaccines in record time. Presumably, there was a fear that any favorable mention of the orange-faced ex-president would ruin Times readers’ breakfasts. 

President Donald Trump’s vaccine success evoked the great achievements of early 20th-century government — the gigantic dams built by progressive Republicans and New Deal Democrats that produced zero-emission electricity; the astonishing production of airplanes, tanks and ships in World War II; the building of the Pentagon — still the world’s largest office building 80 years later — in just 18 months. There’s also the Manhattan Project, which in three years produced not one but two workable atomic bombs; and the Apollo program, which in nine years sent men to the moon. 

Like Operation Warp Speed, all these involved massive government financing of private sector research and production. Franklin Roosevelt had seen firsthand the suboptimal performance of government-seized railroads and shipyards in World War I. He chose, despite his anti-business prejudices, to rely on big corporations rather than government agencies to get things done in his war. 

Why did those mammoth government projects work so much better than most government works today? Three reasons immediately occur. 

One is that these earlier efforts had clear goals with an endpoint in sight. The A-bomb. The moon. 

Second, they did not face the regulatory apparatus and environmental roadblocks that hobble big projects today. Philip Howard of Common Good has advanced proposals for ditching the endless lawsuits and delays spawned by decades of (well-intentioned) laws and regulations. As a developer, Trump seemed well-positioned to push for such reforms. Alas, he mostly didn’t.  

The third thing that’s different is that we’re not getting the kind of get-it-done leaders needed to make government work. Roosevelt had an uncanny knack, unmatched by recent presidents, of choosing the right person, civilian or military, for the jobs he really wanted to get done. He promoted Gen. George Marshall in September 1939 and snagged General Motors President William Knudsen to coordinate war production in May 1940. This meant that the United States was already getting prepared for war when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. 

Gen. Leslie Groves and James Webb were not politically correct choices to head the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program, respectively, but they got their seemingly impossible jobs done. Sometimes that took scrambling and ignoring ordinary procedures. Reading Dan McLaughlin’s account in National Review of how Operation Warp Speed officials got an air-handling unit delivered from the Midwest to a Massachusetts Moderna factory by arranging a law enforcement escort brought to mind Steve Vogel’s account in “The Pentagon” of how Gen. Brehon Somervell, told that a steel shipment would be weeks late, ordered a truck convoy to ship the stuff from Pittsburgh to Washington overnight.  

To achieve anything like Klein’s ambitious goals, you need clear goals; you need to sweep aside bureaucratic roadblocks; and you need, most of all, to choose the right people to get things done, as Trump did on Operation Warp Speed, and Roosevelt did on defense production and the Manhattan Project. Absent those things, big government remains, as I wrote a dozen years ago, “a big, waddling, sluggish beast, ever ready to boss you around, but not able to perform useful functions at anything but a plodding pace.” 

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.