Don’t Just Shrink Government–run It Right

January 26th, 2009 at 12:09 pm | 9 Comments |

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President Obama’s new Cabinet appointees are shaping up to be a too-late lesson for Republicans.

Take for example, Shaun Donovan, President Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Development. Donovan would win just about any best resume contest.  An architect by training, Donovan served as New York City’s Housing Commissioner, held a top housing finance job at Prudential, headed a major HUD bureau, practiced architecture, taught at NYU, and developed affordable housing. By contrast, Senator Mel Martinez, George W. Bush’s first HUD secretary, came to the job after 25 years of legal practice and an uneventful stint as the part-time chair of the Orlando Housing Authority.

Bright people with good resumes sometimes burn out in Washington, and Donovan might well steer HUD in the wrong direction. But his resume alone shows that he is unlikely either to idle away his time in office in search of a big private sector payout or disengage from his own department’s management. Like nearly every person President Obama has appointed to the Cabinet, Donovan knows how to run things. George W. Bush, despite his status as the first “MBA President,” never seemed to care about simple managerial competence.

And it cost him. Indeed, the Bush administration often got into trouble because of management failures: FEMA’s inability to get the resources it needed from the Pentagon and Interior Department caused immense suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; a lack of sufficient body armor resulted in increased troop mortality rates in Iraq; and the failure to even present an cohesive agenda killed any chance at social security reform. It’s notable, indeed, that the two most lauded managers in Bush’s administration–Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs James Peake–didn’t even take office until after the 2006 elections.

Quite simply, the Right has been wrong to assume that simply wanting to shrink government absolves one from the task of running it. After all, federal administration that defended the nation, enforced the laws, conducted foreign affairs, secured the borders, helped the truly needy, maintained national monuments, and built roads would still consume between fifteen to twenty percent of national income. And government’s explosive growth under George W. Bush shows that conservatives have no genuine will to cut government anyway. Without clear values and compelling vision, managerial expertise will do nothing to advance the conservative agenda. But, if it ever hopes to rebuild a majority coalition, the Right must pay far more attention to the actual business of governing.

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • senorlechero

    I think every libearl red-herring has now been thrown up here at Frum’s place. Now it’s ” lack of sufficient body armor resulted in increased troop mortality rates in Iraq” Mr. Lehrer, Overly “up armored” humvees and too much body armor also increased troop mortality rates in Iraq”. Wars are “mortality rate” intensive. Simply going to war adds to the mortality rate. As the parent of a marine grunt who did three tours in Iraq and had to hear him gripe every time his superiors added a SAPI plate or another protective area to the body armor I know the problem is much more complicated than your simplistic comment indicates. When I saw photos of a Gunnery Sgt in Fallujah, weighed down by his body armor, trying to drag a wounded marine, heavy with armor and gear, from the street, getting shot numerous time because he could not move fast enough, I wondered if he might be thinking….”Damn those politicians who forced this stuff on us”

  • suey

    Yep people above all want competent government, and a sense that the appointments are because the people are skilled and qualified. Bush appointed his cronies. Brown, Gonzo, Rove et al and they were disasters. Smaller government is good, small and efficient is better.

  • Kaz

    I can’t wait to read Mr. Lehrer’s follow up in four years – how government is not only larger but more “inefficient”. Well maybe “inefficient” is the wrong word. I’m sure an Obama-led FEMA could hand out the cash cards faster.

    Let’s face it, our government apparatchiks are predominately Democrats and true-belivers in big government. Most of them wouldn’t know a P&L from a PB&J and think “competition” is a matter of finding a better parking spot.

  • suey

    New Orleans is still a disaster these years later. Ground zero is still a hole in the ground after what 7 years, that is a disgrace. We should have rebuilt that area within 2 years at most. You can cover Bush’s A$$ just so often, eventually you run out of cloth.

  • sinz54

    I agree with your basic thesis, but your cited examples don’t really illustrate the point.

    The reason why FEMA was underfunded and mismanaged was because in 2001, it was rolled into the then brand-new Department of Homeland Security, which saw its mission as fighting terrorism, not hurricanes.

    As for the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld was considered just as competent and experienced in his field as Shaun Donovan is in his. (Rumsfeld had even been SecDef once before.) The failure of the Bush Administration to dramatically boost the size and capability of the ground forces was not due to managerial incompetence. Rather, it was due to a strategic error: The Bushies’ assumption was that the war in Iraq would be over relatively quickly, even with a modest invasion force. This Defense Department analysis, prepared in 2002 and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the Bush Administration expected that the occupation of Iraq would be mostly peaceful (no significant insurgency) and last less than 4 years. And that all U.S. troops (except for a token force of 5,000) would be out of Iraq by December 2006:

  • GA Conservative

    I do not know your politics, but I agree that GWB failed the competence of management front of the federal government. However, it’s not just his fault, but rather, the entire mess of Republicans in Washington, both elected, appointed, and staffers.

    Every American deserves to have efficient government, but most Washington Republicans think that the way of achieving that is through mismanagement.

    What happened is a failure of process. Through mismanagement they figured, Americans would tire of government and want to get rid of it. Let it fail large enough to trim the fat. However, citizens are smarter than that and they are finally beginning to purge our party of the neophytes who have done so much damage to our country.

  • suey

    FEMA used to be a proud efficient organisation. Then b
    Bush the “decider” decided to decimate it’s funding and amalgamate it with Chertoff’s disaster. The outcome an emergency task force unable to rescue a cat up a tree.

  • suey

    I have often thought that the Bush republicans were deliberately terrible at governing so we would just give up and go back to just statewide government. Your post GA tends to confirm that thought.

  • sinz54

    Suey: As I said, FEMA stopped being effective after it was rolled into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). What we really should be talking about is whether having DHS swallow up so many other agencies, reducing their visibility and clout, was really a good idea. It was done in the wake of 9-11, when the entire Government was scrambling to find an effective response. Now that over 7 years have passed, we ought to revisit the entire issue of the DHS, and decide what’s working well and what’s not working well.