It’s Dukakis Time! Why 2008 Will Be About Competence

Competency usually doesn’t win Presidential elections. Michael Dukakis tried it in 1988, touting the Massachusetts Miracle. It was spectacularly unsuccessful. But 2008 may be different. This may be the first election in many years in which managerial capability trumps ideology. This is, in large part, the doing of the current administration. When liberals used to call this Presidency the “most incompetent” in history, conservatives would roll their eyes. Now they are reduced to arguing that it is less incompetent, at least, than the Carter administration. In this time of polarized politics and venomous rhetoric, there is a broad bipartisan consensus that this administration, regardless of its policies and prevailing philosophy, is just plain inept. The list of blunders now goes well beyond the big-ticket items of Iraq and Katrina. Everyone from John McCain to John Edwards agrees that the management of the war has been awful; the only difference of opinion is whether it was ever winnable. But beyond these headliners comes a string of minor and not-so-minor goofs and unforced errors: the Dubai Ports deal, the lost Veterans Affairs computer, the Harriet Miers nomination, the Walter Reed hospital scandal and the politically motivated termination of eight U.S. Attorneys. While some of these episodes are arguably less deserving of a place on this list than others—Dubai is a perfectly reliable ally, for example, and the U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President—the administration’s execution and public explanation of these events is indefensible. So what is the reason for the outbreak of incompetence? Is it because of a culture of secrecy that prevents vetting of alternative views? Is it because this administration has contempt for most functions of government? Is it because the intellectually flabby “compassionate conservatism” that got George W. Bush elected produced an administration and bureaucracy without any firm sense of purpose or direction? Is it because delegation is a skill better suited to a C.E.O. than a President of the Unites States? Perhaps it’s a bit of all of these. So where does that leave us for 2008? It should give an advantage to those with a record of managerial competency. If the public managerial for someone to help the government get its act together, then those who have successfully managed a crisis or two and have achieved tangible results will have a leg up. The advantage here will go to the executives. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney will argue that balancing the Massachusetts budget and seizing command of Boston’s Big Dig debacle are proof of his qualifications. Rudy Giuliani will point to the successful fight against crime in New York and his well-documented leadership after Sept. 11. Mike Huckabee will roll out his statistics on improved education and health care in Arkansas. On the Democratic side, Bill Richardson—in contrast with a field dominated by legislators—will be able to tout the record of executive success that got him re-elected in New Mexico by an overwhelming margin. But if you run on your record, you have to live with the mistakes that you’ve made. Opposition researchers are already combing through the records for the miscues that plagued each of these men. Mr. Romney’s health plan has hidden costs, his opponents will say. Mr. Richardson blundered as Energy Secretary. Mr. Huckabee spent like a drunken sailor. Mr. Giuliani was a tyrant. And so on. Still, they’ve all been there. They all know what it is to be an executive, and they have real records of accomplishment to point to. The public is growing weary of an administration that looks more and more like the Keystone Kops with each passing day. The candidate who can effectively project the ability to act as a capable steward may well be this year’s ultimate crossover candidate—and the next President. Maybe Mr. Dukakis is still available. Jennifer Rubin is a writer living in Virginia.