by Elaine Kamarck
In the 1988 presidential election, Michael Dukakis was pilloried – rightly – for running a soulless campaign whose message consisted of the phrase, “It’s not about ideology, it’s about competence.” But times change. That was before the Federal Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina so overwhelmed us with its incompetence that America was humiliated before the world. The response to Katrina, however, was only the most dramatic in a long series of government failures, from the planning of the war in Iraq, to the failure of the occupation, to the design of the Medicare prescription drug policy. At the Kennedy School of Government, where I teach, we have traditionally begun the required course in government management with a case study on the Chicago heat wave of 1995 where hundreds of people died before the government even knew what was happening. The message we try to convey to our students of government every year was brought home to the entire country in September of 2005: when the private sector fails to manage organizations well, people lose money; when the public sector fails to manage well, people die.
For decades, Democrats have suffered under the political albatross of being the party of big government. But in the past decade we have had several dramatic “teaching moments” in America; moments that just might allow us to change the political conversation going forward and get out from under this millstone. First came the government shutdown in early 1996. Lots of Americans learned that the federal government was everywhere – it was funding pieces of their state and local governments and it was funding charities like Catholic Charities. President Clinton won a fairly dramatic victory over that shutdown – to the surprise of the Republicans who had believed perhaps too much in their own small government rhetoric.
Next came the tragedy of 9/11 where the heroes were government workers – from the New York firefighters who ran into the collapsing buildings, to the cops, to the airmen, seamen and soldiers who took off into Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 9/11 “trust in government” leapt higher than it had been at any time since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nothing like a tragedy to make people appreciate when and why government matters. While the trust-in-government numbers came down to more normal levels in the months after 9/11, the temporary spike served as a useful reminder that, in the end, the private sector does not keep us safe.
And then came Hurricane Katrina where government at all levels, but especially federal government, failed spectacularly. Once again, everyone understood that we needed a government that works. No one seriously thought that the private sector could have rescued New Orleans.
In just four years tragedy showed us that sometimes we really need government and that when we really need it we need it to work. Just as Democrats had no trouble agreeing on a message of opposition to Social Security privatization, they have had no trouble agreeing on a message about the incompetence of the current government. Focusing on competence allows those Democrats who voted for the war and those who voted against the war to have a unified message. No wonder that the opening of the Democratic response to the 2006 State of the Union focused on competence. The new Governor of Virginia, Tim Keane, summed up the argument as follows: “You know, no matter what political philosophy you hold or what state you call home, you have a right to expect that your government can deliver results.”
Competence is not a very rousing theme. It is not easily turned into a convention cheer. But for the upcoming mid-term elections it’s not a bad start for the Democrats. For six years now the Bush Administration has beaten up Democrats over values: patriotism, family, life – you name it. But they are in a tailspin now. Why? They can’t deliver results. They can’t get armor to troops in the field in Iraq, they can’t design a Medicare prescription drug program, they can’t save lives in a hurricane, they can’t protect American ports. This list of what they can’t do is fairly impressive. Think about it for a moment – maybe a political party that hates government is doomed to govern badly.
It is not just that competence is back – over the past six years the entire basis for disliking Democrats has been turned upside down. In 2001 a Republican president inherited a budget surplus; by 2008 a Republican president and a Republican Congress will have bequeathed record budget deficits. Numerous conservative think tanks and scholars have pointed this out as well as Democrats. So just who is the party of big government these days? And, perhaps more importantly, aren’t we entitled to some competence for all that money?
Republicans will try to argue that the Bush deficits are all about military and homeland defense, but the Cato Institute, not exactly a bastion of liberal apologists, has shown the fallacy of that argument. Looking at spending policy back to President Johnson, Stephen Slivinski says, “Contrast that with Bush’s presidency so far. He has presided over massive increases in almost every category. This is a dramatic change from previous presidents, when increases in defense spending were offset by cuts in non-defense spending…”
Democrats have a chance to morph their image as the party of government into the party of government that works. They should put together a robust reform agenda that focuses on the adaptations the federal government needs to make to protect America in this new era. To do that they should start with one simple but powerful proposal (championed by Senator Hillary Clinton): take FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) out of DHS (the Department of Homeland Security).
A government that can “deliver results” will stand in stark contrast to the current situation. Democrats voted for and against the Iraq War, but none of them thinks it has been led wisely. Democrats are the long-time champions of a prescription drug program, but no one thinks the bureaucratic mess that seniors are now muddling through is what the doctor ordered. Democrats do not have to solve every internal disagreement they have in order to go to the country with a pretty convincing case that the Administration is the “gang that can’t shoot straight” and that allowing a pliant and beaten Republican majority to control Congress has allowed a bad situation to get even worse.
Looking beyond the mid-terms, a government reform agenda can do for the Democratic candidate of 2008 what “reinventing government” did for Bill Clinton in 1992: show that he or she is attuned to the fact that government needs to work better and more efficiently than it does now. This was an important message for Clinton to deliver in 1992 since it helped him show people that he was a “different kind of Democrat.” In 2008 a new version of that message, re-worked around the theme of government competence, will be a welcome change from the record of the previous Administration.
In the long run focusing on the competence issue will be the political equivalent of making lemonade out of lemons. Democrats need to take the fact that they created the modern federal government and show that they are uniquely qualified to make it work. This means a non-stop reform effort, one that will sometimes displease the government workers unions that now constitute the largest portion of the American labor movement. This means taking on entrenched interest groups that benefit from government ineptness. This means a constant drive towards productivity in government as a way of moving the Democrats away from the party of big government to the party that provides the government that you need.
by Elaine Kamarck