Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

When did Democrats become the party of free stuff?

The party of John F. Kennedy appears to be moving away from the idea that government is not there to serve us.
AP/file 1962
The party of John F. Kennedy appears to be moving away from the idea that government is not there to serve us.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio was quick to connect policies embraced during the recent Democratic debate to broad promises of more government giveaways.

“It was basically a liberal-versus-liberal debate about who was going to give away the most free stuff,” Rubio told Fox News. “Free college education, free college education for people illegally in this country, free health care, free everything.”

Campaign trail hyperbole, for sure, from a candidate who should better respect financial need. Rubio had trouble paying off student loans and once used a state Republican Party credit card to pay for a home paving project. An unpleasant racial undertone also colors such remarks.

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Yet, progessive ideology is increasingly about asking government to provide more for its citizens — and more for noncitizens, too. From that perspective, it turns on its head the iconic message of Democrat John F. Kennedy to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

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On that cold day in January 1961, Kennedy was not, of course, bemoaning government-sponsored “free stuff,” or calling for program cutbacks. Indeed, his administration sponsored fresh endeavors, such as the Peace Corps. He also inspired a generation to view government service as a sacred, higher calling. But the Kennedy model was strongly rooted in the notion of self-reliance, as well as the belief, explicitly stated in his inaugural address, that government is not there to serve us. We are there to serve it.

I believe in the social safety net and in government programs that help people move from economic crisis to a more stable life. That’s not free stuff. But it is expensive stuff, and it needs to get results. Yet after all these decades, the need is still growing, despite everyone’s best intentions.

Since the New Frontier, the definition of service to country has increasingly shifted to another model: the taxpayer’s duty to underwrite bigger government. The goal is to help the neediest. After JFK’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” Its aim, he said, was “not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it and above all, to prevent it.” At the 50-year mark, retrospectives suggested LBJ went further than Kennedy would have done. Its mixed results lie at the root of today’s bitter, partisan divide on the best way to improve an individual’s economic status.

Which brings us to the Oct. 13 debate between the five Democrats who are running for president. On the Democratic side, the discussion is shifting sharply left, with Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” leading the charge.

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A Washington Post post-debate guide defines socialists as people who believe “that the government should provide a wide range of basic services to its citizens free of charge or at a discount, typically including university education and health care, as well as child care, housing, telecommunications, energy, and more.” They also believe these services “should be available to everyone, not just the neediest.”

Democratic socialists, explained the Post, aren’t talking about “using government to take over large sections of the economy.” They just want government to pay for it.

During the debate, Sanders talked about providing health care “to all people as a right,” as well as medical and family paid leave. He also supports expanding Social Security and free public universities. Hillary Clinton wants to enhance Social Security benefits for the poorest recipients, and supports “debt-free college.” On the question of where the money comes from to pay for such programs, Clinton promised to “make the wealthy pay.”

As a Think Progress analysis points out, Republicans “offer up free stuff too . . . but they bestow their gifts on a different set of people.” This is done through tax cuts on corporations and tax deductions allowed for wealthy individuals “that give people ‘free stuff’ more inconspicuously than food stamps or Medicaid.” That’s as much about buying votes as Republicans like Rubio suggest Democrats are doing with their “free stuff.”

Yet there’s still something inherently depressing about a country that forever needs to pour more taxpayer resources into rescuing people from economic crisis, and a Democratic party that now makes that the chief incentive for voter support.

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The era when Americans were not supposed to ask their country what it could do for them, and instead ask what they can do for their country, feels like ancient history. And Democrats are the ones closing the door on it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.