On NPR's On Point last night, this was the very topic of discussion: the competency (or lack thereof) of the Bush administration. A great topic for discussion except, unfortunately, the choice of guests made pretty certain that little discussion actually took place. A pair of guests, one from the American Enterprise Institute and the other from the Heritage Foundation, both staunchly conservative think tanks, steadfastly refused to lay any blame at the feet of President Bush for his lack of effectiveness in office. The other side of the argument, a member of the Brookings Institution and Atlantic Monthly Senior Editor Jack Beatty, did a remarkable job of citing particular examples of Bush's incompetence without really addressing some of the larger issues at play. (Note: Jack's explanation of how Bush's economic policy can be best described as "looting for special interests" was particularly chilling in its accuracy.) Host Tom Ashbrook seemed to be practically begging the participants to look at the larger systemic failures of Bush's policies, which I think is where the real meat of this discussion lies.
The issue of competency is particularly relevant in light of the release of a Republican Congressional committee report excoriating the Bush administration's failures after Hurricane Katrina (from Darksyde at Dkos):
A House Investigative Committee composed entirely of Republicans will officially issue their findings as early as today on the Federal preparedness and response during Hurricane Katrina. The stinging five-hundred plus page document characterizes the poorly planned and badly coordinated Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and White House response to the disaster as "dismal".
"Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare," the report states. [...] The federal government's response was marked "fecklessness, flailing and organisational paralysis". [...] "Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare," said a summary of the scathing report.
The response to Hurricane Katrina is not the only example of Bush administration incompetence, but it may be the greatest given that, unlike Iraq, there has been no enemy working against the Bush administration in the Katrina fiasco. So what has caused such an egregious lack of effective government by Bush, where Katrina, Iraq and other policies are concerned? I can think of a few likely causes.
The first that comes to mind, especially when looking at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, is the staunch dedication to political cronyism by the current White House. Now, all elected officials, Presidents especially, use political appointments to reward their donors and supporters. While I don't agree with that practice, it and of itself it's not necessarily a problem in all instances. However, George W. Bush takes such practice to the extreme. It's been quipped more than once (I recall by Bill Maher, for example) that Bush's circle of friends must be very small, given the faces that keep popping up for political appointments around him. Further, former FEMA director Michael Brown will go down in history as arguably the most incompetent political payback nomination in history, even though some of the blame for his appointment should rightly go to the Senate that confirmed him.
The same holds true for the appointees sent to Iraq as part of the reconstruction efforts. Notables such as L. Paul Bremer, who, while undoubtedly well-educated and well-intentioned, oversaw such a mismanagement of funds and resources as to result in some of the worst fiscal management ever seen. Even today, some $10 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds remain missing and unaccounted for and the infrastructure of Iraq remains below the levels experienced under the Hussein regime. Tales abound of young political operatives sent to Iraq, in lieu of trained Middle Eastern experts, in order to spread the propaganda of Bush's "shock and awe them into freedom" foreign policy.
The second cause for such poor performance under the Bush administration has been an utter lack of accountability from anyone involved in Bush's policies. Former CIA director George Tenet, who oversaw the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts. Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the disastrous post-war non-plan in Iraq, remains Secretary of Defense, in spite of calls from both sides of the aisle for his resignation. Even Michael Brown was not dismissed by the Bush administration until after serious pushing by both parties and the American public. As any manager knows, those who do sloppy work and are not held accountable simply go on to do more sloppy work. It's clear that Bush values loyalty over competence, and shows no signs of heeding the warnings from Congress and the voters that federal mismanagement is not a trivial issue to them. In light of that, it will be interesting to see the results of the Katrina hearings, in which Michael Chertoff, director of Homeland Security, is testifying today. Chertoff has apparently mastered the Bush technique of explaining that, as head of DHS or as President they are accountable for the actions of the departments and personnel under them, while not actually taking any personal responsibility whatsoever. Taking responsibility means more than just saying "I'm responsible", especially when the same incompetent mistakes keep occurring.
The last major cause of ineffectual public administration by Bush is really a criticism of the entire Republican establishment and it's conservative roots. At the most basic level, a political party and philosophy that believes federal government programs are inherently ineffectual cannot honestly be expected to manage such programs properly. This was demonstrated exquisitely by the gentleman on On Point last night from the AEI as he claimed that Bush's policies have run aground because the federal government itself is too flawed to operate effectively. The other gentleman, from the Heritage Foundation, concurred and even added that Bush is a man of "big plans" and, as such, will undoubtedly run into certain roadblocks in his mission to remake the federal government in the conservative image. I found this as yet another great example also of the "Bushism" that Glenn Greenwald notes has evolved from old-school conservatism. Bush is just so obviously a man of such legendary leadership and vision that any failures during his administration simply cannot be laid at his feet. Such rugged individualists, these faux-conservatives.
I find the last reason the most compelling because it sets up a great campaign theme for an aspiring Democrat. The Bush administration isn't just incompetent because of its cronyism and lack of accountability, but also because of a governing philosophy incompatible with a strong federal system. Any party that sees government as a problem and not a problem-solver is not going to do an effective job of overseeing the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. And that lack of competency has grave consequences. Just ask the families of GI's in Iraq or the former residents of New Orleans.