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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Give “Competence” Another Try: This Time it Might Work.

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.

5 comments on “Give “Competence” Another Try: This Time it Might Work.

  1. Isaac Segal on

    As exasperating as the rote repetiton of talking points by the Republicans may be, we can’t overlook the simple fact that this technique has been effective in framing the debate over many issues.
    So, in highlighting the across-the-board incompetence of the Busheviks, why not adopt the same tactic? In fact, why not use their own words?
    Specifically, “heckuva job.”
    These two words have become universally recognized, even among Republicans, as a symbol of the cluelessness and carelessness of the Bush administration’s response to a national disaster.
    Why not apply them to its many other failures?
    Mideast policy? “They’ve certainly done a heckuva job in making the area more peaceful.”
    The environment? “They’re doing a heckuva job in addressing a problem that could affect the lives on everyone on earth.”
    The economy? “The Dow is about where it was when they took office. A heckuva job by any standard.”
    And so on.
    A little derision can go a long way. Especially when combined with statements of self-evident fact.
    And if the Hannitys, Limbaughs, and Coulters of the world find it disrespectful of their president–hey, they’re his own words.

  2. brian on

    I agree with the victory strategy above.
    Neither party has one.
    Stay and hope for the best in Iraq (and the region). Leave and hope for the best in Iraq (and the region). THese Seem to be the publically presented options.
    There is no Victory strategy.
    Victory is an evolving target with the administration and Dems are not loud and proud with a decent way out.
    How to get out and preserve (not honor) but Strength (in the region).
    There is no leadership.

  3. jonathan reed on

    If Democrats want to expand their base they have to realize that much of what partisans of either party say sounds like annoying spin to independents. For example, the Katrina disaster was a spectacular display of governmental incompetence at all levels, including the collapse of the New Orleans police. This article seems to attribute main blame to the federal government which sounds like opportunistic salesmanship to independents. Likewise, the argument that Democrats can conduct the Iraq war with more competence than Republicans while glossing over whether the war should have been started will strike independents as laughable bravado or salesmanship.
    To win on competence Democrats are going to have to develop candidates for progressively higher offices who can boast of actual prior acheivements in government. This is a long term goal, admittedly, but one that Democrats should have an advantage over Republicans on as Democrats are greater believers in the ability of government to benefit people.
    But please, arguing that Democrats conduct foreign invasions better than Republicans just strikes independents that the Democrats are clueless.

  4. William M. Ford on

    I am an independent. I don’t care about either party. I am American to the bone!!!
    If the Democrats are to take back the country, they must find a way to WIN in Iraq.
    The problem is and has been – not enough troops to win.
    WE must send a force of 400,000 troops, get the job done and get out.
    It won’t be a popular suggestion for all, but it is the way to win.
    William M. Ford, Ph.D.
    USAF, Retired

  5. Dave on

    I agree with the spirit of this article, but I wonder if the idea:
    “maybe a political party that hates government is doomed to govern badly”
    couldn’t even be expanded. I do not suggest that Republicans are conspiring to make government perform badly (that would be an outrageous thing to say), but it’s noteworthy that, in the long run, the prime beneficiaries of government incompetence, whether by Republicans or Democrats, will be Republicans.
    It is, in essence, a win-win situation for Republicans. Incompetent government, after all, only appears to prove their point that government can’t be trusted. While the Republicans may take a hit in the short term, in the long run their actions only tend to reduce public trust in government, leaving voters more open to Reaganesque “government is the problem” rhetoric.
    One thing Democrats might work on is finding ways to describe government competence beyond big, abstract numbers. Let’s see campaign events centered around (for example): once-polluted rivers that government action has cleaned up, working families who got a leg up thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit, the elementary school where kids are reading better thanks to an innovative government program, and so on.
    We shouldn’t even be afraid to (occasionally)highlight successful programs pioneered by the Republicans, because any time we can show how competent government makes lives better and communities stronger, Democratic ideals win.
    Dave Kamper
    Candidate for Sangamon County Board, District 18, Springfield, Illinois


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