Politics & Policy

The Dukakis Moment

Looking for a problem-solver on a white horse.

Washington is atwitter with ‘08 presidential talk. Of course, it’s way too early for this sort of thing. But that’s never stopped handicappers from poring over the polls and travel schedules of the wannabes like ancient priests staring at goat innards in the mistaken belief that they can glean the future from the hue of the viscera.

But one particular qualification has emerged above all others: competence.

On the liberal side this is hardly new. Historically, Democrats have been the party of government, so their shtick is to claim they can steer the leviathan state around any rocky shoals to the coastline of nirvana. Former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis — a man who proved we don’t need biotechnology to create the Worst Candidate Ever — summed up this attitude nicely when he declared in 1988 that the election was about “competence, not ideology.”

Until recently, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner were positioning themselves as problem-solvers, not ideologues. But, for the moment, such maneuvering has been eclipsed by an acrid cloud of Bush hatred. When it dissipates, we can be sure the competence mantra will return.

Indeed, there is a hunger for competence out there. In foreign policy, the less-than-turnkey operation in Iraq and the wiliness of the Axis of Evil have created a longing for sober-eyed realism. Indeed, at no point in my lifetime has amoral Kissingerian realpolitik had greater appeal on both sides of the aisle.

Domestically, the yearning to be rescued by a clipboard-carrying cavalry of uber-bureaucrats hasn’t been this pronounced since the early 1960s, when John F. Kennedy and his crowd claimed that most of the important public-policy questions had been settled and all that was left was for his whiz kids to fix the world. After Hurricane Katrina, a host of avowedly “post-partisan” commentators have focused on a widespread desire for, in the words of the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, a “party of performance.”

Others have tried to revivify the Progressive spirit of government as a calling.

The prevalence of this thinking is best illustrated by its penetration into the GOP. The most salient arguments for one candidate over another hinge on the question of competence. Can candidate X make government work? John McCain fancies himself the new Teddy Roosevelt, the martial Progressive who manhandled the state with the strength of a bull moose. Rudy Giuliani more than anyone has cultivated his status as a can-do man, a crisis manager, “Mr. 9/11.” Newt Gingrich, who — full-disclosure time — has shown the brilliance and foresight to hire my wife as a consultant, is the “ideas guy” in the pre-primary primary. Speaking glowingly of the Progressives, Gingrich wants to “transform” government, to make it more efficient, effective and responsive. Bill Frist — about whom someone will surely one day say “if only he were still alive” long before his actual death — insinuates at every opportunity that his expertise as a can-do surgeon translates into a governing philosophy. And Mitt Romney not only has the best teeth in politics but a plausible sales pitch as the best policy wonk in office today.

Lost in the backroom debates and New Hampshire coffee klatches is the question of ideology. Until recently, the conservative objection to such “competence” worship was that it steals an intellectual base; it takes it as a given that the government is the solution to our problems. This is the opposite of the Reaganite view that the government, more often than not, is the problem. As of now, the only GOP candidate vying for the Reagan mantle is Virginia Sen. George Allen. The rap against Allen, alas, is that it’s not clear if his Reaganism amounts to much more than a well-rehearsed litany of bumper-sticker quotations.

Politics always change to meet the demands of the time. During the Cold War, small-government ideology had greater public appeal because the threat of “collectivism” seemed so much more salient. After the Cold War, voters — conservatives included — became more pragmatic. In the 1990s, a host of conservative policy intellectuals tried to remake conservatism into a philosophy of state intervention, under such rubrics as “national greatness” and “progressive conservatism.”

And while it is surely true that we live in times that require considerable policy savoir-faire, it’s worth remembering how we got here. George W. Bush didn’t run as a small-government conservative in the first place. He ran as a “reformer with results,” and his big-government conservatism was his attempt to make good on that promise. Some may claim — with some merit — that today’s longing for a problem-solver on a white horse is a response to Bush’s record in office. But this gets the causation backward. And the great irony is that Bush’s most enduring legacy, after the war on terror and his heroic Supreme Court picks, will in all likelihood be the political vindication of Michael Dukakis.

(c) 2006 Tribune Media Services

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