Competence Comes First
Our political differences have grown so profound, and become so nasty, that we've lost sight of the one thing that matters more than policy: competence. Even the wisest, most carefully conceived policy will end in failure if the officials who execute it have no idea what they're doing.
To point out the obvious, President Obama and his team are utterly, completely incompetent when it comes to executing national policy. The catastrophic launch of Obamacare is only the latest example. Whatever that gun-running operation to Mexico called Fast-and-Furious was really about, it's clear the administration made a mess of it. The president and his national security team failed to protect our consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. And when the attack came they failed miserably, and fatally, to rescue our Ambassador and his three colleagues.
I'm not asserting that the president and his team are totally incompetent. They do a better job of getting their base out to vote than any group of politicos have ever done before in our country's history. Their efforts to trash their political opponents are unfair and often vicious but -- alas -- they are astoundingly successful. Their talents for deflecting blame and stonewalling investigations of their criminal mid-deeds are extraordinary.
It's just that they have no idea how to run a government -- which is what they were elected to do.
Author's note to those readers who are already jumping out of their chairs and starting to type comments-to-the-editor suggesting, not very politely, that Herb Meyer is so stupid he doesn't even realize that all these "failures" are actually brilliant maneuvers by the President and his team to destroy our country:
Yes, I know it's a mistake to underestimate one's enemies. But it's an even bigger mistake to overestimate your enemies and give them more credit than they're due. And this bigger mistake happens in politics all the time.
One day at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 -- very possibly the greatest collection of diplomats in European history -- an aide approached France's brilliant and famously suspicious foreign minister, Talleyrand, and whispered in his ear that the Russian ambassador had just dropped dead. Talleyrand thought for a moment, stroked his chin, then muttered, "I wonder what he's up to?" And how often have you heard some conspiracy nut insist that the imbecile George W. Bush organized the 9-11 attacks -- without realizing that if President Bush actually had organized the 9-11 attacks, this "imbecile" would have somehow pulled off the greatest counter-intelligence operation in history?
Reader, I don't like President Obama any more than you do, and I agree he's a left-wing-radical-socialist-neo-Marxist who despises much of what made America great and who's far too fond of the Muslim Brotherhood. But he's not a genius. What we've seen in the Obamacare rollout, in Fast-and-Furious, in Benghazi and in so many other White House screw-ups isn't willful duplicity, but incompetence.
End of author's clever, delightful -- and probably ineffective -- effort to disarm his critics.
It's become a cliché to say in the not-too-distant past, Republicans and Democrats in Washington DC knew how to get along with one another. And it's true. But why? It isn't because their political differences were narrower; they were just as wide then as they are now. It's because more of the Republicans and Democrats we used to elect were competent. And competent officials have an intuitive feel for what a government can and cannot do without bringing the whole thing crashing down. They know when to stop arguing, settle their differences, and get on with the complicated job of making government work.
Think of two cardiologists arguing over how best to treat a patient with a serious heart problem. One cardiologist opts for open heart surgery; the other thinks a less invasive procedure would be the wisest course, for example putting in a stent. Both cardiologists are sure they're right; they're overworked, exhausted, and one of them may have a personal problem at home that's left him with a short temper. But they're highly-trained professionals, and they won't keep arguing while their patient expires on the operating table. They'll have an intuitive feel for when to reach a decision one way or the other, and a shared code of conduct that will require them to work together for the patient's best welfare.
In the 21st century, governing has become a complicated business -- not just at the national level, but also at the state and even at the local level. This means it's now the responsibility of all parties to choose as their nominees candidates who not only support their parties' positions but who also have the experience, the talent, and the administrative competence to successfully execute these policies. And it means that voters have the responsibility to put competence before ideology; to insist that their parties not nominate candidates who cannot actually do the jobs for which they are running, no matter how appealing may be their personalities and how attractive their ideologies.
Personally, I would rather be governed by competent liberals than by incompetent conservatives -- in the same sense that I would rather be flown to Moscow by competent pilots than board a 747 to Paris with three clowns in the cockpit who were out drinking all night and who barely squeaked through flight school. At least after I've landed in Moscow I can make my way to Paris; there isn't much chance I'd walk away from a jumbo jet death-spiral into the ocean.
In politics, just as in aviation, competent people at least get you there alive -- which means you live to fight another day. Incompetent people -- our president being a case in point -- leave behind them a wreckage so complete that putting the pieces back together is nearly impossible. By all means let's continue to fight over policies. Politics is a brutal business, so these fights will sometimes be nasty and good people will sometimes be personally wounded. In the long run, hard fighting over policies is healthy for our country. But please, can we at least agree that from now on, competence comes first?
Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He is author of How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty.