Adam Ash

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Please God, let the next President at least be competent

Voters want opposite of current ineptitude
By Dick Polman/Philadelphia Inquirer

Is it too much to ask that our next president possess the requisite skills to govern competently?

Competence is not a sexy campaign issue. Lest we forget, Democrat Michael Dukakis declared that the 1988 race was about "competence, not ideology," and he wound up losing 40 states. But given the multiple failures of execution over the last six years, many voters in 2008 might well warm to a candidate with demonstrable executive smarts, somebody who pledges to simply appoint competent public servants and hold them accountable.

Call it "the competence election," the quest to find a leader who, at minimum, can run the government better than George W. Bush.

Naturally, millions of committed liberal and conservative voters will put ideology first. But I'd bet that the larger pool of independent voters - the people who usually swing a national election - will be just as focused on finding a capable steward who can master the details of factual reality and demand that key subordinates do the same. In other words, the opposite of what we have today.

This is one big reason why Rudy Giuliani strikes many Republicans as an appealing figure, despite his liberal social views and stormy home life. They hear about how he knocked heads in New York City and cleaned the place up, and they like that. They're also hearing about some of his executive management rules, as spelled out in his 2002 book Leadership - little homilies such as "Always Sweat the Small Stuff," and "Prepare Relentlessly" and "Everyone's Accountable All of the Time."

This yearning for competence also explains why GOP candidate Mitt Romney advertises himself as somebody who loves "wallowing in the data," who revels in explaining the intricate details of his Massachusetts health-care plan. Even John McCain, who has no executive experience, has been talking about how Iraq has been "badly managed." Ideology still matters most in Republican primaries, but this time GOP voters will also pay heed to the competence factor.

Democratic primary voters are probably most focused on Iraq and their traditional issues. Indeed, it's worth noting that none of their top contenders - Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards - have any executive experience. But Clinton, in particular, is already honing a competence pitch for the general election. She eschews ideology and talks instead about the importance of forging practical solutions that can be "executed with nonpartisan competence" - a centrist pitch to the swing-voting independents who want government to run properly.

Even former Bush fans acknowledge this urge to start fresh. Conservative National Review commentator Rich Lowry said, "Bush has been ill-served by his willingness to stand by failed subordinates - thereby eroding any sense of accountability - by his relative lack of interest in details, and by his inability to establish coherence within his own government." That's quite an indictment, considering that Bush was hailed back in 2001 (at least in the red states) as someone who would run the government as a business, befitting his status as the first president to have earned a master's in business administration.

Instead, there is institutional wreckage at every turn. It's tempting merely to chart the demise of FEMA, which at the time of Hurricane Katrina was run by the former head of the International Arabian Horse Association. But one needs only to traverse the landscape - NASA, the CIA (where hundreds of career nonpartisan senior staffers have been driven out), Veterans Affairs, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Food and Drug Administration, the FBI, the Justice Department, the Pentagon, and many more - to understand why even top Republicans have begun to grumble about hacks in high places. As one House leader reportedly said the other day (while pleading anonymity), "We always have claimed that we were the party of better management. How can we claim that anymore?"

Bush, as a candidate, foreshadowed his managerial style when he said this: "What I don't appreciate is people who think they're all of a sudden smarter than the average person because they happen to have an Ivy League degree." He has since taken care of that problem.

The VA is run by Jim Nicholson, who had no previous experience on vets' issues, but who, on the other hand, had raised nearly $400 million as chairman of the national Republican Party; back in June 2005, he admitted that the VA had undercounted - by 80,000 - the number of vets expected for treatment that year, because it had failed to anticipate that Iraq might spark an enrollment surge. But Nicholson is a seasoned player compared with George Deutsch: At age 24, and with no science experience, he was installed at NASA, where he ordered the agency's top scientists not to publicly discuss global warming. His qualifications? He worked as an intern on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.

There are scores of examples - notably Bush loyalist Harriet Miers, whose qualifications as a Supreme Court nominee included a stint on the Texas Lottery Commission, and whose legal writings consisted of three articles, one of them advertising the American Bar Association's new telephones - and scant space to recount them. It's worth noting, however, that the best defense currently being offered by the Bush team, in the prosecutor purge scandal, is that it was merely a "badly mishandled" case of bungling. Which, in itself, is an acknowledgment of managerial incompetence.

Why has all this happened? Liberals generally contend that the current ineptitude is actually an indictment of conservative governance itself.

They side with Alan Wolfe, a Boston College political scientist, who wrote last summer, in a widely circulated Washington Monthly article, that Bush's conservative team is incompetent because it is contemptuous of government service and thus has no incentive to make it work properly for the greater good. As Wolfe argued, "Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government. . . . As a way of governing, conservatism is another name for disaster."

That kind of argument is catnip to Democratic base voters, primed to view the '08 race as a repudiation of conservative governance. But I doubt it would work with the swing-voting centrists who pay scant attention to ideology. I sense this because I have sat in their living rooms in pivotal states since 1992, and they talk mostly about wanting a president who can "fix things" and "run things right" and "bring in good people." The winning candidate next year may well be the person who plausibly pledges to banish the Bush hackocracy and usher in an era of professional competence.

(Contact Dick Polman at


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