THE BLOG
08/25/2016 02:44 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2017

"Make Government Work Better": What Every Democratic Politician Should Promise in This Election

With grassroots anger driving this presidential election---anger at government, anger at Congress, anger at Wall Street, anger at the elites and the establishment, heck, anger at everything---Democrats could make electoral headway by addressing one of those objects with this do-able promise: "Make government work better."

And Democrats are the ones to make such promise, because, unlike Republicans who have ranted against all things government for generations now, Democrats still believe government can work for the benefit of the people.

Government touches our lives in many ways---at the federal, state, and local level. But those ways in recent years have not been altogether good, even including, sorry to say, during the Democratic administration of Barack Obama.

The stories of governmental ineptitude and waste of the Obama years are legion: The Department of Veterans Affairs forcing veterans into unconscionably long wait times for appointments, with vets dying without proper attention. The Internal Revenue Service improperly auditing conservative groups. The General Services Administration's lavish departmental conference in Las Vegas. The Secret Service's various scandals, too many to cite, jeopardizing its mission to protect the President.

And who can forget the totally bollixed rollout of Obamacare, which ate the news for a good year and which still taints the program, despite its ultimately smoother---and successful---operation. Readers will have other examples.

Sometimes it's the nearby snafu, at the state or local level, that rankles the worst. Here in Washington state, the Department of Corrections mistakenly released 3,300 prisoners before their terms were up, due to computer error. Wait: Aren't humans in charge of the cell keys? This failure of central mission drives citizens nuts and, in this case, fear for their safety. Sadly, this happened on a Democratic governor's watch.

Mission review in the agencies should be conducted constantly, to ensure that the central mission is being met---and to ensure, at the very least, that no more prisoners are released prematurely due to computer glitches. (Washington is not the only state guilty in this regard; so are Michigan, California, and Nebraska.)

In reaction post-snafu, it's not enough for an agency head to cite complexity or enormity of scale as the reason for an operational snafu. Presidents and governors who appoint agency heads absolutely need to ensure their appointees bring executive and managerial skills and are not just being rewarded for political favors.

Over time, the unending drip-drip-drip of government snafus in the media creates, like the halo effect, a smear effect that, in the mind of the increasingly angry citizen, goes beyond the inept agency in the headlines to smear all of government. Indeed, the question becomes for the angry citizen: Does any government agency work as it should---and as it did, once upon a time, in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration during the Great Depression and World War II. Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal is marked by many observers as the advent of the public's declining trust in government.

It is the citizen, of course, who is most injured and ill-served when a government snafu occurs. But the other injured party, one not often recognized, is the highly-skilled and dedicated public servant, who, by the millions, graduate top of their class and head to Washington, D.C. or the state capitals to render service to the public. It's a noble profession, public service, but after decades of anti-government venom and innumerable snafus, one wonders how much longer the same quality will want to become the much-maligned "bureaucrat"?

Democrats: We have a repair job to do. At the Democratic national convention in July, much was said about government's role, but not much was said, either in speeches or the party platform, about making the government we have work better. In a hurting economy, government waste infuriates. In a nation unsure of its greatness, government ineptitude disheartens.

Democratic politicians can give heart and gain votes by vowing to make government work better. Especially with the visible public projects that seem never to get finished, like road or bridge repair, vow to finish them---and then, once in office, do it. A strong example: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's vow to launch a $275-billion national infrastructure program, if she is elected.

Of course, to make government work better, we need political leaders who behave better. This is not to condemn the entire current roster, not at all; the Democrats in Congress are the members trying to make that dysfunctional institution functional; they are dedicated public servants of sound character. But, recurring to the smear effect again: All it takes in today's angry atmosphere is just one bad actor (for one, ex-Congressman Anthony Wiener), indulging in tasteless behavior or wrongdoing, to smear all of his cohorts, leading the public to conclude all politicians are perverts or crooks. This is a massive load for the conscientious politician (of whom, again, there are many).

And once in office, legislators must appropriate sufficient budget funds to the agencies, so agencies can get their legislated job done. A Congress back in the control of Democrats could end the endless Republican budget games.

To conclude: Donald Trump has stoked the anger and disillusion in the country with his slogan, "Make America great again," proposing authoritarian and xenophobic means to achieve a better day. Democrats recognize the perils of the present moment, but, more hopeful, believe adherence to America's foundational ideals will bring us to that better day, thus our favorite slogan, "We can do better."

So, Democrats: Make the U.S. government---once a marvel in world history---work better.

Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." (Archives here.)