New York Times
February 6, 2006
We are ruled by bunglers. Every major venture by the Bush administration, from the occupation of Iraq to the Medicare drug program, has turned into an epic saga of incompetence. In retrospect, the Clinton years look like a golden era of good government.
Given the Bush administration's evident inability to govern, Democratic electoral victories should be a sure thing. But they aren't. Why?
Before I try to answer that question, let me justify my assertion — which is sure to generate a lot of angry mail — that Bill Clinton knew how to govern, while George W. Bush doesn't. All you have to do is consider the rise and fall of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Under the elder George Bush, FEMA was used as a dumping ground for political cronies, with predictable results. Descriptions of FEMA's response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 sound just like the response to Katrina: for three days FEMA was nowhere to be found, and when it finally arrived its relief efforts were utterly incompetent.
Bill Clinton changed all that by choosing James Lee Witt, who knew a lot about disaster management, to run FEMA, and encouraging him to run the agency professionally. The result was a spectacular improvement in performance. FEMA, formerly considered one of the worst agencies in the federal government, won praise for its quick and effective responses to events like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
But George W. Bush restored the practice of stuffing FEMA with cronies; the ludicrous Michael Brown is gone, but others remain. And the agency has reverted to impotence and incompetence.
As FEMA went, so went government as a whole.
On one side, FEMA's rebirth under Mr. Clinton wasn't unique. For example, a similar tale of miraculous turnaround can be told about the Veterans Health Administration. And I'd argue that there was a broad improvement in the government's professionalism during the Clinton era.
On the other side, what happened to FEMA starting in 2001 is typical: politicization and cronyism have become standard operating procedure throughout the federal government, even when the need for professionalism is obvious. (Recall how unqualified political loyalists were sent to run Iraq during the crucial first year.) That's one main reason President Bush has failed at everything he's tried except cutting taxes — and winning elections.
Which brings me to the political puzzle. Our leaders' bungling hasn't escaped public notice: more than half of Americans say that the Bush administration has been a failure. Yet it's not at all clear that Democrats can translate this sentiment into large political gains — because despite the governing skill of the last Democratic administration, the public doesn't think of Democrats as being effective.
A lot of this has to do with the way the news media cover politics: they focus mainly on Washington, and many news organizations — especially the broadcast media — prefer to do horse-race stories rather than discuss policy issues. And from that point of view, the Democrats present a sorry spectacle. Not only are they a minority in Congress, shut out of power; they're an undisciplined minority constantly facing defections from their own ranks on crucial issues.
The issue of Iraq epitomizes the political paradox. The war has been a monstrous policy failure, but it remains a political asset to the Bush administration, because it divides the Democrats and makes them look ineffectual.
Yet if the Democrats could present a united front on Iraq, they'd probably have a lot of public support. You'd never know it from the range of views represented on the Sunday talk shows, but a majority of Americans believes both that the administration deliberately misled the nation about W.M.D.'s and that we should set a timetable for withdrawal.
And the public's views on other issues seem to favor the Democratic position — or, rather, what the Democratic position would probably be if the Democrats could agree on one — even more strongly. For example, the public believes by two to one that the government should guarantee health insurance for all Americans.
The point is that Democrats are largely winning the battle of ideas: on the issues, public opinion is shifting in their direction. But to take advantage of that shift, they have to overcome an image of ineffectiveness that is partly the fault of the news media, but largely the result of their own disunion.