Belief in the ineffectiveness of government, as we have seen in recent weeks, is self-fulfilling. For some, it is also deadly. It is a cause for wonder that those most critical of government are among those most eager to secure its power. Not believing in government, however, a conservative either does not know or care to know how to make it effective. Response to hurricane Katrina is not proof of government’s failure; it is proof of George W. Bush’s failure to govern effectively.
The failure to govern well is a natural and a predictable result of disbelief in government. It is a brief step from disbelief in government to disbelief in governance. With many Democrats in tow, conservatives have demonized government: “Government is not the answer; government is the problem,” was Ronald Reagan’s inaugural pronouncement. How does one, not believing in government, respond when given its reins? In the case of the incumbent and previous conservative presidents the response is to not take it too seriously. Work out a couple of hours a day. Take a nap. Watch television in the evenings. Resist foreign travel and engagement in the great events of the times. Delegate authority, in many cases to incompetent people, because it really doesn’t matter much. Most of all avoid responsibility and, at all costs, accept accountability only reluctantly.
The most obvious problem with this theory of management, if you wish to call it that, is that people die. On January 31, 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, the most comprehensive review of national security in more than half a century which I co-chaired with Warren Rudman, warned of terrorist attacks and urged President Bush to create a Department of Homeland Security. Eight months later, 9.11 occurred. He was warned. He neglected to act. Another nine months went by before he reluctantly acceded to our recommendation. A year and a half was lost. He was never called to account.
Four years later hurricane Katrina revealed how slip-shod, mismanaged, uncoordinated, lackadaisical that agency still was. The president took little or no interest. He could not be bothered. This was “government” and he does not believe in government. When in public office, I heard chanted like a mantra, Why can’t we run government like a business? Perhaps only George W. Bush can imagine running a giant corporation like he tries to run the government of the world’s greatest super-power. It would soon be on the verge of bankruptcy, its customers would have fled, its management would be in chaos, and any board of directors worth its salt would have fired him. Does he really want to be held to serious business standards? As Edmund Burke had it, “a great empire and little minds go ill together.”
The columnist David Brooks recently asked how “a comprehensive governmental failure is going to restore America’s faith in big government.” It shouldn’t. But it should now cause Americans to wake up to the difference between ineffective and effective government and the consequence of electing a “leader” who not only doesn’t believe in government, he doesn’t believe in governance. To judge the effectiveness of government by the performance of the most incompetent president in modern times is a shabby refuge for discredited conservatism.
There was a time when the terrorism of the day was economic depression. Thankfully we had a president who had the genius to govern effectively and he saved democratic capitalism. But he couldn’t waste much time on an exercise bike, for he had polio.
Whatever one’s beliefs about the size of government, and the size of government has increased under Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, there ought to be some commonsense consensus that to seek to govern at all involves a solemn commitment to govern well. And to govern well means to be engaged, to step off the exercise bike and into the machinery of management, to appoint competent managers and actively inquire whether they are doing their jobs, to visit the levees before they give way, to order a snap emergency drill at Homeland Security and put a stop-watch on performance, to visit first responders (even without photographers) to see if they are awake and to offer encouragement.
Had we had a president who believed in effective, energetic government, levees might have been strengthened, drills coordinating disaster response among levels of government might have been carried out, mothballed military bases might have been made ready for victims, evacuation plans might have been current. We have now paid the somber price for the carefree neglect, the smirk and the wink, the frat-boy funny names, the swagger and the brush-cutting photo-ops. Now is the time for a sober understanding that governing America requires more than an attitude, especially one that guarantees ineffective government and incompetent governance.
We might then not have the most physically fit president in recent history, but we would surely have a more physically fit nation