While Americans maintain a healthy skepticism about the size of a centralized federal government, they also have aspirations for this government. The eternal grousing about governmental waste and incompetence is an indirect proof of these aspirations; they complain because they expect, or at least wish, their government to be effective. Because the United States is a democratic republic, many Americans look upon the federal government as one vehicle for achieving their ends of happiness.
It is a fact of politics that public opinion about the individual leaders of a given political movement shapes public opinion about the principles of that movement. Since the public is deeply alienated by administrative incompetence, it is important, as a matter of practice and of holding power, for the leadership of this movement to be competent—and not merely competent in winning elections, but competent in governing. The seeds of many an electoral defeat are sown by an incumbent’s very own policies.
There are two important components of competence in government: knowing the effects of various policies and being able to respond appropriately in moments of crisis. While the world is complex enough that we cannot know all the implications of a given policy (this complexity is a strong argument for a skepticism about top-down masterplans), being able to evaluate the broad or immediate effects of a policy is key for successful government. So many policy debates are questions of agency—which policy details will most effectively achieve our ends? For example, if we’re looking to stimulate the economy, what is the best way to do that—through government spending programs, payroll tax holidays, targeted subsidies, etc.?
Despite what some technocrats may wish, politics is not solely about debating the best way to achieve certain aims. It is also about discussing what ends are worth achieving and what limits we should place on ourselves in order to achieve these ends. But knowing how our actions will affect our search for our chosen ends is a key component of achieving these ends. It can be said that many of the negative results of the policies of the Bush administration (excesses and shortcomings in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, the financial crisis, the buffeting of the middle class) were not sought for, but these policy failures did not bode well for the Republican party or for small-government thinking.
The ability to respond well in moment of crisis may seem merely a specialized application of a general sense of competence, yet, in politics and as much else, making the transition from general theory to practical application can be a considerable jump. Responding effectively to a crisis places especial weight upon the ability to make use of civic powers with speed and insight. This response involves projecting a complex and partially unstable mix of calmness, energy, passion, and technical skill. Leadership at moments of crisis can make a president or break him. The contrast between the performances of President Bush on 9/11 and during the aftermath of Katrina in 2005 is instructive in this regard. The first elevated his presidency; the second hardened narratives about administrative incompetence and helped cripple his second term. President Obama’s response to the oil spill in the Gulf has undercut his narrative of effectiveness and has no doubt not helped his poll numbers.
Crisis places particular burdens upon the structure of an administration’s decision-making process. Can an administration succeed in getting a diversity of expert opinions? Can it then succeed in synthesizing these opinions in a workable action plan? Does it have appropriate figures in the chain of decision making, linking the Oval Office to boots on the ground? Can it shape a media narrative of adversity and effective response rather than one of incompetence and back-pedaling?
It is easy to dismiss questions of administrative competence in the face of ideological demands. But, on balance, it is probably better to have serving in office those who broadly agree with certain political principles and are competent legislators/administrators/etc. than to have those who can tick off all the key points of dogma without any sense of how to get things done—in Washington, in state capitals, or in local offices. The fact of the matter is that the United States has a huge and complex federal government; state governments are also huge and complex. Skill and probity in running this government serve as key political qualifiers.
Good government and small government can be complementary. Ronald Reagan did not only come into Washington pledging to cut the size of government; he also came to restore the faith of Americans in the capacity of the federal government to work, to be managed, and to manage. While some may pose a theoretical opposition between the aim of small government and that of effective government, in practice the two aims often reinforce each other. A government that seems efficient does not need to arrogate more powers to itself. Confidence in American institutions so often leads to increased confidence in the action of one’s fellow Americans (and vice versa), a confidence that is key to maintaining an authentically liberal society.
Governmental efficiency and decentralization complement each other in another way. Often, decentralization is itself the most efficient way to run a government. The flexibility that decentralization brings can, in many circumstances, allow an institution or a set of institutions to respond more effectively to on-the-ground facts.
The details of government matter; politics is about means as well as ends. As the GOP seeks to regain power in 2010 and beyond, competence in administration and in legislative design will be key for both electoral and governmental success.