Can we solve our crisis of competence?

    Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis answers questions during the second presidential debate with opponent Vice President George Bush at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles

    Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis answers questions during the second presidential debate with opponent Vice President George Bush at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles

    Perhaps this could be a winning campaign theme in 2016: “This election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence.”

    Actually, that line was delivered in 1988 by Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. Clearly, it didn’t work for him. But perhaps The Duke was a quarter century ahead of his time.

    Competence is not a sexy issue, but at this point we’d probably be grateful if stuff just worked better. Like, if the Secret Service stopped behaving like the Keystone Cops, if the Veterans Affairs Administration stopped screwing over its patients, if the slackers in Congress stopped gallivanting on long vacations,  if the White House and its ostensible military subordinates stopped sending mixed signals about how best to fight ISIS. And the next time the White House unveils a major website that affects people’s lives, it would be nice if it didn’t crash on launch.

    Those are just the most visible examples of the institutional ineptitude we have come to expect. And remember, last month, when President Obama sent troops to Liberia, to combat the Ebola virus at its source? To nobody’s surprise, there have been “logistical glitches.” As in, “logistical glitches have prevented the United States military from being able to quickly set up the hospitals and treatment centers needed to halt the virus. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the Africa Command, told reporters in Washington that the military was working quickly, but that it could take ‘several weeks’ to get the hospitals built and the medical personnel trained.”

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    Granted, the feds don’t have a monopoly on incompetence. One Ebola patient lands in America – one! – and local medical authorities still managed to screw that up. The Texas hospital sent the infected guy home, and later blamed a “flaw” in the electronic records system; a day later, it said there was no such flaw and shifted blame to the doctors. All of which makes us wonder whether we can believe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it essentially keeps saying, “No worries, folks, everything is under control.”

    Obama haters undoubtedly believe it’s All His Fault, and of course he deserves some blame, because as Harry Truman said, the buck stops there. It’s fair game to argue that Obama’s lack of managerial experience has contributed to the culture of ineptitude. As Elaine Karmack, an ex-Clinton administration official and current think-tanker, said the other day, “This administration has been disconnected from the government it’s supposed to be running….They keep getting surprised by stuff. And the surprise is almost worse than anything else. It conveys a sense that the White House doesn’t know what its own government is doing.”

    That’s quite damning. But lest we forget (and most of us have), it was the same dismal deal under Obama’s predecessor.

    In 2000, George W. Bush was touted as someone who would run the government as a business – he was the first president to get a master’s degree in business administration – but by 2007, he was being damned by the likes of conservative commentator Rich Lowry: “Bush has been ill-served by his willingness to stand by failed subordinates – thereby eroding any sense of accountability – by his relative lack of interest in details, an by his inability to establish coherence within his own government.”

    Why the harsh critique? Because Bush had been hit with incompetence scandals at (among others) Veterans Affairs, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Food and Drug Administration, the FBI, NASA, and (most infamously) FEMA – which had screwed up the Hurricane Katrina crisis thanks to his insistence that the agency be helmed by the former leader of the International Arabian Horse Association. And the horseman’s acting deputy director had only dealt with natural disasters as a local TV anchorman – after which, he served as a Bush campaign advance man.

    So, given the track record of the last umpteen years, I have to quote Casey Stengel, who assessed his 1962 New York Mets (40 wins, 120 losses), and cried out, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

    Can anybody play it better in 2016? If voters are craving competence, seasoned executive experience might be the best ticket to the White House.

    That could arguably boost some of the governors – Jeb Bush? John Kasich of Ohio? Mike Pence of Indiana? Maybe even scandal-clouded Chris Christie? – and hurt the showhorse lightweights like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.  And if competence is indeed a top-tier theme, Hillary Clinton could be boosted; as Republican strategist and ex-Bush adviser Mark McKinnon tells Politico, “she has years of experience in and around the federal government and knows how things work.”

    Maybe it’s too much to expect that any president can command competence in the ranks, or do anything about dolt doctors down in Texas. Maybe Mike Dukakis would’ve whiffed as well. On the other hand, it would be nice not to hear stuff like this anymore:

    In December 2010 (writes NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman), I went to the White House for an interview. I entered through the Secret Service checkpoint on Pennsylvania Avenue. After putting my briefcase through the X-ray machine and collecting it, I grabbed the metal door handle to enter the White House driveway. The handle came off in my hand.

    “Oh, it does that sometimes,” the Secret Service agent at the door said to me nonchalantly, as I tried to fit the wobbly handle back into the socket.

    Could there possibly be a better metaphor?



    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


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