Is It Incompetence, Or By Design?
There’s a very good discussion going on over at DailyKos through a diary written by George Lakoff and two associates from the Rockridge Institute, and the issue has been touched on in the comments to my first post today. Simply put, in evaluating the wreckage of what the Bush Administration has done here at home and overseas, are these perceived failures the result of incompetence, or actually by design? Does the Administration allow and steer critics to a default position of attacking the competence of this crew to avoid the real story, which is that the cabal maintains a malignant view of the role and benefit of government to begin with? The GOP has spent the last five years on auto-pilot milking the "Daddy" Protector image. But that image would be seriously undermined if voters were forced to confront the fact that Daddy doesn't really give a sh*t about you.
Progressives have fallen into a trap. Emboldened by President Bush’s plummeting approval ratings, progressives increasingly point to Bush's "failures" and label him and his administration as incompetent. For example, Nancy Pelosi said “The situation in Iraq and the reckless economic policies in the United States speak to one issue for me, and that is the competence of our leader." Self-satisfying as this criticism may be, it misses the bigger point. Bush’s disasters — Katrina, the Iraq War, the budget deficit — are not so much a testament to his incompetence or a failure of execution. Rather, they are the natural, even inevitable result of his conservative governing philosophy. It is conservatism itself, carried out according to plan, that is at fault. Bush will not be running again, but other conservatives will. His governing philosophy is theirs as well. We should be putting the onus where it belongs, on all conservative office holders and candidates who would lead us off the same cliff.
Lakoff and his associates mention three examples of where it can be argued that the administration’s responses are not the result of incompetence, but are by design and stem from a dark view of government and the rights of the haves versus everyone else. I’ll mention each of the three examples with a question of my own for you to comment on.
The Deficit: Is it incompetence that the tax cuts have reduced our revenue base without generating sufficient growth to fund existing spending levels, or is this by design to drain the treasury and force cuts of domestic spending?
Iraq: Was it incompetence that led to the disbanding of the Iraqi army, police, and Baath Party civil service, or was it by design so that American forces would have to stay long enough for the new Iraqi government to implement the Paul Bremer privatization plan of Iraq’s natural resources?
Katrina: Was it incompetence that FEMA condemned African Americans to misery and death, or was it an outgrowth of a ideology that minimizes the role of government and places personal responsibility ahead of community responsibility?
Kos diarist Bob Johnson puts his finger on the most troubling possibility behind this effort to let critics blast the administration’s competence: it keeps Democrats away from attacking Bush for what he and the rest of his brand of conservatives really represent: a criminal indifference to the plight of common men and women and the impact of these policies. As Johnson noted in another diary, the Bush Administration has a tried-and true method of trying to get away with something, and when it is revealed or goes terribly wrong, immediately allows the anger to veer towards “mistakes were made” and “no one could have predicted” responses to keep the energy focused on reform or fixing the mistakes, instead of actually holding the administration accountable for negligence, and malfeasance.
If Bush officials failed to take action despite warnings of harmful consequences, the more obvious alternatives to classifying this conduct as incompetent are negligence, malfeasance or some intentional crime. In negligent conduct, the actor's action or failure to take action is contrary to what a reasonably prudent person would have done in the situation. In malfeasance, the actor intentionally does "something either legally or morally wrong which one had no right to do. It always involves dishonesty, illegality or knowingly exceeding authority for improper reasons." Malfeasance and negligence both appear to better match the nature of the conduct overall than does incompetence.
Moving away from an incompetence-based defense and towards the more sinister explanation helps explain why supposedly smart people, with years of experience at the top levels of government, can make so many “mistakes” in less than five years. But adopting this line of thinking also inevitably leads one to the most disturbing possibility, if not reality: that 9/11 was the result of outright negligence at best and treason at worst.
I have come to agree with Lakoff on this line of thinking. I think it is far better for Democrats to frame the fall campaign against the Bush Administration not on incompetence, but simply on the message that this string of “mistakes” are by design, and reflect a governing philosophy carried out by people who dislike government, are in it for themselves and their friends, and who don’t give a damn about people who aren't like them.
Sadly, my modus operandi to predict and understand the behavior of this administration is to assume the worst and work backwards from there.