Politics & Policy

It’s Competence, Stupid!

Managerial excellence, not ideological purity, is what the GOP primary is all about.

New York Times columnist David Brooks was wowed by Mitt Romney Friday, offering a rave review of the candidate “talking about his success in business and in running the Olympics. He was talking about how you assemble a team of people with complimentary skills. How you use data and analysis to replace opinion. How you set benchmarks and how often you should perform self-evaluation… It opened up a vista of how government might operate.”

This brought an unimpressed reaction from a closeted conservative editor at a Washington publication, who thought he heard an echo of another former governor of Massachusetts:

Now, come on. Doesn’t that sound, more than anything, like a Republican version of Mike Dukakis? “I can make government work. It’s not about ideology. It’s about competence.” Now, granted, competence might be a saleable message right about now. But it’s also one that is easy to parody, difficult to sustain in the face of hole-poking criticism, and, as far as I can remember, has never been very successful among a Republican electorate. We simply assume our candidates are more or less competent, I think, and move quickly on to other things. Romney is going to have a tough sell if he relies on competence as his major selling point. ‘Managerial excellence’ is not going to persuade me, and I am, right now, completely open to persuasion, a position I have not been in at this point in a presidential election cycle since I have been voting.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate and offer the argument that, at this moment, for conservatives seeking to choose their nominee in 2008, it really is competence, not ideology.

[Pause to dodge tomatoes hurled by readers who interpret this as a de facto defense of Michael Dukakis.]

For starters, let me offer the even more controversial argument that, ideologically, there’s not a huge difference among the four leading Republican candidates:

[Pause as all four campaigns indignantly shout “WHAT? HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT?!?”, and hurl another barrage of tomatoes.]

As it has been well-documented, all of them have their issues where they disagree with conservative orthodoxy:

‐ Giuliani: As mayor, liberal on guns, abortion, and gay rights; insists he would be a federalist on these issues as president.

‐ Romney: Running in 1994 and 2002, sounded as un-conservative as necessary to win in the state of Massachusetts. Wife donated to Planned Parenthood.

‐ Thompson: A federalist on tort reform; supported McCain-Feingold; did the 17 hours of lobbying work for the family-planning group 16 years back.

‐ McCain: Campaign finance; Gang of 14 deal on judges; immigration-reform deal.

In the end, if you’re a down-the-line conservative, it’s pick your poison: Figure out on which issues you’re least upset by dissent from the conservative orthodoxy, and vote for the guy who toes the line on your top issues. Or vote for some second-tier candidate whose chances of winning are slim to none (and Slim just left town, as Dan Rather would say).

But before conservatives start denouncing the field as a herd of RINOs, let’s observe that on most of the other issues — particularly economic and foreign policy, and some legal-social ones — there’s a conservative consensus.

Does anyone think that a President Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, or McCain would not pick Supreme Court justices in the mold of John Roberts or Samuel Alito? Does anyone think they would try to fight their own base on public financing of abortions? Does anyone think they would raise taxes, or try to enact Hillary-style socialized medicine, or agree to meet with the world’s rogue state dictators in their first year in office? (And does anyone doubt that any of the Democratic candidates would do the opposite?)

At the end of the day, on a conservatism scale of one to ten — one being Lincoln Chafee and ten being Rush Limbaugh — all of these guys score about a seven or an eight. None of them are the second coming of Reagan, but all of them would be fairly conservative, and perhaps would be a breath of fresh air.

In fact, the contrast with our current president is illuminating. For as much as President Bush’s policy differences with his base (especially on immigration and spending) have hurt him, I would suspect what is truly driving conservatives batty is what is now incontrovertible evidence that Bush is a poor manager.

A couple of vividly illustrative examples:

Rumsfeld’s Departure: One week before the election, Bush repeated to wire-service reporters an oft-declared pledge that he intended to keep Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon until he leaves office in 2009. The day after the election, Bush announced Rumsfeld’s departure and named Gates his successor. Entirely separate from the merits of whether Rumsfeld should stay or go, can anyone argue that it was wise to explicitly and repeatedly promise that he would stay, only to drop him right after the election? If Rumsfeld was already on his way out (as the readiness of Gates suggested), announce it before the election so that GOP candidates didn’t have to defend an unpopular Pentagon chief and could talk up Gates. The timing resulted in the worst of all worlds — GOP candidates having to defend Rumsfeld, the widespread perception that Bush lied, and the perception that the Democratic victory had instantly forced changes.

Alberto Gonzales: Having seen contradictory, confused, or incoherent answers to inquiries from the beginning of the U.S. attorney mess, Republicans don’t want to defend Gonzales, National Review wants him to resign, and conservative bloggers want the “Fredo“ of the Bush White House to be taken out fishing. But he stays, despite one appalling appearance before Congressional panels after another, ensuring a continuing controversy. Fair or not, Bush creates the perception that he values personal friendship and loyalty over competence and good judgment. And on that note…

Harriet Miers: ‘Nuff said.

The timing and manner of the immigration fight: By early this year, Bush’s approval rating had dropped below 40 percent, down to his base of solid conservatives. And then he decided to advocate, loudly and repeatedly, for legislation passionately despised by that base. Whether or not Bush’s view was right, it was the wrong fight at the wrong time. It’s not unprecedented for a president to oppose his base — Clinton did so on welfare reform and NAFTA — but fighting for those idiosyncratic priorities has to be done carefully and respectfully. Throughout the immigration debate, Bush and his allies demonstrated the opposite — after its first defeat, Bush brushed off the vote and dismissed the opposition arguments, declaring, “I’ll see you at the bill signing.” His secretary of homeland security contended that the opposition wanted the death penalty for illegal immigrants, and Senate ally Lindsey Graham lamented to the New York Times about the “racism” in the debate — all of which alienated and infuriated conservatives at a time when the White House needed all the friends it could get.

Finally surging in Iraq: Reports that the surge has triggered tangible benefits in Iraq is great. But there’s a nagging question in the minds of those of us who want to see success in Iraq — why did the surge concept only get tried at the beginning of 2007? By the end of 2003 it was clear that Iraq would have a persistent, violent insurgency. Where were these additional troops and more aggressive tactics in 2004, 2005 and 2006? In retrospect, didn’t the administration waste three years’ worth of American patience with policies and military leaders who essentially treaded water? Or could these tactics and reinforcements and General Petraeus’s leadership have only worked in this moment? If we’re seeing positive results with 155,000 troops that we didn’t see with 120,000 troops, didn’t the “send more troops” crowd deserve more attention from the White House in retrospect?

Some of these pratfalls have ideological elements, but all of them were at least exacerbated by bad management — bad communications, bad judgment, bad analysis, bad self-evaluation. A future Republican president who is marginally less conservative, but a better manager, may actually achieve a great deal more for the Right than President Bush has.

Jim Geraghty blogs at campaignspot.nationalreview.com.

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