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You can't blame 'Uncle Sam' for what Bush does

NEXT YEAR, 1.3 million college students will receive reduced Pell grants for college aid. Another 89,000 currently eligible students will get no aid at all. These cuts will save the Bush administration about $300 million, a small part of what it needs to pay for its tax cuts and military forays.

Here's how Terry W. Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education, characterized the situation to The New York Times. "Season's Greetings from Uncle Sam," Hartle said sarcastically. "Your student aid stocking is going to be a little thinner this year."

Excuse me. It isn't Uncle Sam playing Scrooge. It is the Bush administration.

I've noticed a pattern here. The administration makes a concerted effort to disparage "the government." That's not surprising; the administration believes in cutting taxes (mostly on the wealthy) and reducing services on everyone else. The less confidence people have in government, the easier it is to sell tax cuts. But what is distressing is that people who should know better, even advocates of public services, are falling into the trap of confusing "the government" with a particular administration and its policies.

Mr. Hartle, repeat after me: "Season's Greetings from President Bush . . . "

Here's another example. The president, in touting plans for Social Security privatization, declared in his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention, "We must strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in a personal account, a nest egg you can call your own and government can never take away."

But it isn't "government" that's threatening Social Security. It's Bush.

Recently, the NPR program "The Connection" invited me to debate my Dec. 8 Globe column arguing the case for a national identity card. I had written, playing against type, that a national ID card with proper safeguards would be an improvement on the mess we have now, where citizens' personal information reposes in dozens of government and commercial data bases, with far too few prohibitions against its misuse.

With a national ID card, approved by Congress in return for stringent safeguards, we could have instant voter registration, better protections against teen binge-drinking, clarity about who is entitled to legally work, as well as more effective control against terrorism. In exchange, we could pull back some of the real abuses in the USA Patriot Act, and strengthen privacy in other respects.

Most callers objected, largely because of amorphous fear of something called "the government." I observed that the problem is not the government, but the administration. There is a universe of difference between Bush's authoritarian Attorney General John Ashcroft and such distinguished liberty-respecting predecessors as Edward Levi, who served under Gerald Ford. A liberal Congress could enact severe penalties for misusing confidential data. Liberal judges could enforce them.

Note how beautifully this all works for Bush. Appointees like Ashcroft make Americans fear their government, with good reason. Then, when Bush disparages government's ability to safeguard Social Security, he has already softened up public opinion to suspect and fear government.

Even Democratic officials fall into the trap. When Bill Clinton famously reassured a voter that he would not let "the government" tamper with her Medicare," he passed up an opportunity to remind her, and the American people, that Medicare exists only because the government provides it. And government provides it only because a Democratic congressional majority in 1964 overrode the opposition of the health-industrial complex and their Republican allies.

John Kerry unfortunately played into the same trap during the 2004 campaign, when he indignantly denied that his proposed plan to expand health coverage involved government. Of course it did. It had to, because the private sector won't provide enough health coverage at decent cost. That's one of the reasons we need government.

Some of us, as a matter of principle, don't think government should play much of a role in society. That's fine. But polls show that most Americans actually value Social Security, public education, reliable health coverage, and other services that the Bush administration proposes to reduce or kill.

This country is (still) a democracy. If we don't like the way a particular administration runs our government, we should get a different administration. We shouldn't displace our concerns into a generalized loathing of "the government."

Despite the right's propaganda, if we can't think clearly enough to distinguish the government from the administration, we will lose what we actually like about government, as well as our function of being free, deliberative citizens in a self-governing democracy.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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