What's the proper role for the federal government? That question has been a major topic in the election, but all too often, the answers have been reduced to silly oversimplifications that can fit into a 140-character Twitter feed.
To conservative Republicans, President Barack Obama is a dedicated socialist who wants to turn Washington into a version of Moscow -- or at least Paris -- where central planners make economic decisions and throttle the free market with suffocating regulations and bloated tax bills.
In the cartoon version of reality propounded by Democrats, Republicans are enslaved to hard-hearted business tycoons who would let capitalism run wild, while tossing defenseless widows and orphans into the street, unrestrained by either legal or moral limits.
Both stereotypes are wrong, of course, and most Americans know that. What they want, as the saying goes, is not big government or small government but smart government. They want balance, moderation, good sense. They are willing to pay taxes, but they want value for their hard-earned dollars.
David Cote, a Republican business executive, made this point in arguing that higher revenues have to be part of any budget deal to reduce the ballooning federal deficit. "To say that you can solve this without increases in taxes is ludicrous," he told The New York Times. "Most wealthy people get it. They just don't want to be put in the position, though, where you pay more in taxes and profligate spending continues."
Now, on the eve of the election, Hurricane Sandy has thrown a spotlight on an agency that actually provides a model for a sensible allocation of government resources and responsibility -- FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA does two things well: It distributes aid to hard-pressed states at a time when their economies are rattled and their resources depleted. And it coordinates relief efforts across state lines or when governors ask for help.
Most attempts to discuss the role of government in a smart and sane way are disrupted by ideologues on both sides who demand allegiance to a black-and-white image of a very gray world. And there's no better example of that sterile and stupid approach than Mitt Romney's discussion of FEMA during a Republican primary debate last year.
Asked if disaster relief should be returned to the states, Romney said, "Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."
And that's not just campaign rhetoric aimed at hard-right primary voters. As the Times notes, the budget advanced by Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, "would result in severe cutbacks to the agency." How would those cuts fly right now with Republican governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey or Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who might rail against the evils of Washington but are darn glad that FEMA is ready and able to bail out their flood-drenched states?
At times, President Obama has tried to sidestep this good vs. evil debate and advance a measured role for Washington. Rescuing the auto industry, for example, was the right thing to do because it saved thousands of jobs. And he made sense during the Denver debate when he talked about federal investments in education and research that "create ladders of opportunity and ... frameworks where the American people can succeed."
But he has not always governed that way. The Dodd-Frank bill expanding supervision of the financial marketplace did some good things, but it has also spawned what The Economist calls a "hideous complexity" of new regulations that threaten the economic recovery. And "hideous complexity" is probably an understatement when it comes to Obamacare, a vast overhaul of the medical delivery system that passed with no Republican votes and remains deeply unpopular with many Americans.
Investing in basic research makes sense. Investing in specific companies does not, and Romney has effectively criticized Obama for losses suffered by green energy companies that were backed by Washington. "You don't just pick the winners and losers," he chided the president in Denver, "you pick the losers."
Government has a more significant role to play than the minimalist design advanced by purebred conservatives. But it should follow a far less intrusive course than the one advocated by liberal social engineers. The dedicated federal workers helping to clean up after Sandy provide some hope that a sensible middle ground is not impossible to find.