Democratic Underground

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 tenure.

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

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