The Democrats have a strategy for winning back Congress. As John Podhoretz wrote in yesterday’s New York Post: “Democrats have found themselves a workable, poll-tested, focus-grouped sound bite… That sound bite is the word “incompetent.” Implicit in the Democrats’ charge of Republican incompetence is that they offer the alternative: competence.
It’s an appealing quality in a public figure, particularly when his job duties are clear. A voter wants a competent police chief and knows what competence entails. When the public figure is a member of Congress or president, however, competence isn’t enough. Members of Congress don’t just execute plans, they make them. Just one glaring problem for Democrats: They have no constructive policy agenda.
Democrats can make the “incompetence” charge work on issues like the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The public has a sense of what any government–whether it’s run by Republicans or Democrats–should do in the wake of a catastrophic disaster. Fair or not, the public believes the administration botched its response to Katrina. The Democrats’ claim that they would have handled the emergency better resonates.
Incompetence is less persuasive when it comes to Iraq. Democrats tar the intelligence community as having been “incompetent” for believing that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But statements by Democratic statesman–from President Clinton to Senator John Kerry–reveal that, when presented with the same information, Democrats reached the same conclusion: like President Bush, they thought Saddam Hussein had WMDs and threatened the United States.
Democrats can capitalize on the public’s frustration with the continued violence in Iraq and a perception that progress is slow. It’s unclear, however, what exactly Democrats would have done differently had they been in charge and even less clear what they would do moving forward. Most Americans will expect candidates not just to be critics, but to offer ideas of their own.
The incompetence argument really breaks down when it comes to domestic policy. Democrats offer no affirmative plan for Social Security, education, healthcare, welfare, immigration, trade, and the list could go on. Democrats complain about the federal budget deficit, but oppose any effort to restrain domestic spending. Voters can be certain of one thing, if the Democrats were in charge, they’d competently raise taxes. Higher taxes are a start for an agenda, but hardly one that will wow focus groups.
Republicans confront their share of internal party strife, but have general principles that unite. Republicans support lower taxes and fewer regulations. They want the federal government to transform tax-and-spend entitlement programs, like Social Security, into programs based on saving and investment. Republicans believe in markets. They support education policies that give parents greater ability to choose their children’s schools. They want a healthcare system that vests more control and responsibility in patients. Although it’s not without controversy, Republicans support free trade. Republicans want a judiciary that leaves lawmaking to lawmakers.
The problem for Republicans is that much of their base believes they’ve been incompetent in enacting this agenda. There have been successes: appointing two exemplary Supreme Court justices, enacting tax cuts, creating a school-voucher program in Washington DC, and expanding health savings accounts. But there’s also a long list of domestic-policy “accomplishments” that run counter to Republican beliefs. The monstrously costly Medicare prescription-drug benefit may be the most egregious example, but there’s also the farm bill, steel tariffs, “No Child Left Behind,” the highway bill, and campaign-finance reform. Together these “accomplishments” have made this president the biggest spender since LBJ.
This election season, Republicans’ first priority needs to be to convince the rank-and-file that they are still the party of Ronald Reagan. Making progress on this agenda is the best way to thwart the Democrats’ “incompetent” attack.