It's About Competence, Not Ideology
December 7, 2005
By Bennet G. Kelley
In accepting the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1988, Michael
Dukakis explained that "this election isn't about ideology.
It's about competence. ... It's not about meaningless labels. It's
about ... [o]ld-fashioned values like accountability and responsibility
and respect for the truth."
Dukakis may have been wrong then, but he would be dead on today.
Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, wrote that the
"opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy
himself." The Republicans are proving this point, as their
plummeting approval ratings and recent losses are largely due to
the fact that they chose ideology over competence and addressing
the real issues confronting Americans.
Republicans strained our armed forces and reputation by invading
Iraq instead of defeating Al Qaeda; focused on Terry Schiavo instead
of the need for affordable health care; pushed for more tax cuts
instead of reducing the deficit; and sought to privatize Social
Security instead of addressing the solvency of Social Security (or
Medicare which faces a deficit seven times larger).
The Republican's ideological myopia is not limited to the halls
of Washington. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger was one of
the few who thought the state's biggest priorities this year were
emasculating union pensions and campaign funds, and reducing teacher
All this came to a head in August when Hurricane Katrina revealed
that not only had the Bush administration chosen cronyism over providing
effective government when it was most needed but they also had drained
the nation's resources on tax cuts and Iraq, leaving New Orleans'
levees at risk. If Sun Tzu was advising the Democrats today, I am
sure he would say "heck of a job, Brownie."
The Democrats can seize this opportunity by stressing the very
same themes Dukakis outlined – competence, accountability and respect
for the truth. While pundits claim that Democrats must come up with
an equivalent to the Republican's 1994 "Contract with America,"
this is based on a political urban legend - the Contract was not
the key to the Republican victory as less than thirty percent of
Americans had even heard of it.
Just as Ronald Reagan crystallized the 1980 election by asking
"are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
the 2006 election can be defined by the simple question: isn't it
time we had a government that cares more about results than ideology?
This message resonates since it reminds voters that the party's
priority will be the people's agenda and not the quixotic dreams
of hard-liners. In addition, it embodies the progressive pragmatism
that was at the heart of the Dukakis and Clinton campaigns. It is
no coincidence that when Dukakis and Clinton veteran Robert Reich
attempted to create a ten-point Democratic manifesto for the 2006
election, competence was number one on the list.
In the upcoming Congressional races, accountability and respect
for the truth must be tied to the question of competence. While
a majority of voters now believe that President Bush is dishonest
and misled us into a quagmire in Iraq, Congressional Republicans
have been willing collaborators in the administration's deceit and
have refused to demand the answers that the voters expect.
It is one thing to perform your job incompetently as the Bush
administration clearly has, but it is far worse to abandon your
job altogether as Congressional Republicans have by refusing to
engage in any meaningful oversight of this administration. The Republican
Congress has answered to the White House's call rather than fulfill
their Constitutional role of ensuring that the White House is answerable
to the American people.
Democrats must hammer this point since a principal choice in the
upcoming mid-term elections is whether voters want the White House
to be accountable to the American people, versus more of the same.
The Republicans have given Democrats a tremendous opportunity
by failing to deliver the two things voters want most – results
and the truth. Democrats can best seize this opportunity, not through
detailed position papers that dilute their message, but by emphasizing
the same "old fashion values" stressed by Governor Dukakis
- competence, accountability and respect for the truth.
The fact that these simple propositions might lead the Democrats
to victory only demonstrates how far off course the Republicans
have gone in the pursuit of their ideological Holy Grails.
Bennet Kelley was Co-Founder and National Co-Chair of the Democratic
National Committee's Saxophone Club, and is publisher of BushLies.net.