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Mitch Daniels, Michael Dukakis, George Will and the 'Charisma of Competence'

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If columnist George Will really wants to get his friend Mitch Daniels elected president, maybe he should stop talking about "the charisma of competence."

Will used the phrase in a praise-laden introduction of the second-term Indiana governor at the Conservative Political Action Conference recently in Washington. He repeated it a few days later at the conclusion of a column devoted to promoting Daniels. Those are very high-profile venues, and perhaps it's true that all publicity is good publicity. But competence has not been a terrific selling point in past presidential races for short governors with laudatory records.

Well, at least for one short governor with a laudatory record.

The candidate most associated with a competence pitch is probably Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, who was at the time the governor of Massachusetts. "This election isn't about ideology. It's about competence," he said in his speech accepting the nomination. Dukakis brought up the line himself in a telephone interview. He pointed out that he also said the 1988 election was about values, but "nobody remembers the second sentence."

Dukakis had mentioned both ideas in a descriptive summary of what he said Americans had a right to expect from their leaders: Competence, job creation, opportunity, and "American values. Old fashioned values like accountability and responsibility and respect for the truth."

Why did people remember little but the line about competence? "Beats me," Dukakis said.

There are some clues. Back then, his record as governor formed the basis of his appeal. It worked well in a Democratic primary field in which he was the only sitting governor. "A great deal of what propelled my candidacy," Dukakis told me, was the idea that "we had our act together, we were doing good things, we were a great success story in many ways, and I had something to do with that. There's no question that's important, especially if you run as a governor."

That helped him prevail in the primaries and conceivably could have been part of a strategy to win the White House. This was, after all, a time when the federal deficit was rising, Ronald Reagan was 77 and arguably fading, and the administration had been rocked by the Iran-Contra scandal -- illegal U.S. arms sold to Iran, with profits used to illegally finance rebels in Nicaragua.

Dukakis, who is teaching public policy and leadership this semester at UCLA, is the first to admit that "I ran a lousy campaign." But even if it had been great, the competence pitch would have been problematic. For one thing, there are always chinks in the armor of competence that can be magnified and exploited in a presidential campaign. For Dukakis, it was his handling of a weekend furlough program that allowed convicted murderer Willie Horton to leave prison and commit armed robbery and rape.

Beyond that, as Dukakis himself told me, voters in a general election campaign "want the poetry. They want leadership. They want inspiration. It isn't enough to say 'I'm a good government mechanic.' That's not going to get you anywhere."

Though he tried, Dukakis never transcended his persona as a nerdy technocrat, one who famously read books about Swedish land-use planning while on vacation and offered a rote talking point in response to a hypothetical question about his wife being raped and murdered. It was no wonder his statement about competence stuck-- it reinforced public perceptions in a way that "values" did not.

We are now at another juncture that calls for competence. Enter Daniels, warning of the federal government's vulnerability to the "Red Menace" of red ink. In Indiana, Daniels has managed to keep his budget balanced without draconian cuts while expanding health coverage and all-day kindergarten.

He hasn't been entirely averse to raising taxes -- he hiked the cigarette tax to pay for the health expansion and raised the sales tax to offset a property tax cut -- and he often says that you can't rule anything out, given the nation's fiscal straits. His relative openness to tax increases would be a primary-season complication for him if he runs, but in a general election he could pitch his pragmatism as the mark of a competent manager.

Early signs are that the chink in Daniels' competence armor is his tenure as director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2003, in the George W. Bush administration. At the time Daniels estimated the Iraq war would cost $60 billion and asked for $2.5 billion in rebuilding funds. So far the war has cost $775 billion and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has projected it will top $1 trillion. The war has been largely financed with borrowed money.

Some Democrats already are raising Daniels' OMB record, Dukakis among them. "Bush comes in with Daniels and what do they do? They give us two wars and five tax cuts," Dukakis said, erasing surpluses from the Clinton era and starting the country down the path to its current $1.5 trillion-plus deficit and $14 trillion debt. "How do you sell that as competence?"

That's the chink. Then there's the charisma problem, because, let's be honest, competence is not in itself charismatic. It's boring. Perhaps aided by his Harley motorcycle habit and sense of humor, Daniels would need to shift from his green-eyeshade approach to one with enough sweep and uplift to command the national stage.

The late North Dakota historian Larry Remele used the phrase "charisma of competence" years ago to describe Bill Guy, the governor of North Dakota from 1960 to 1972. In fact it's the title of a new documentary about Guy's life and public service.

In researching the phrase, I kept accidentally typing "charisma of confidence." It turns out that's how Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, described Ronald Reagan on the occasion of his death. The information was revelatory. The "charisma of competence" is a low-wattage attribute much appreciated in governors. It takes the far more alluring and inspirational "charisma of confidence" to win the presidency.

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Dukakis regularly turned killers loose from prison, including Willie Horton, because he believed that people could be reformed. Then, during the campaign, he rode on the top of a tank, looking like a monkey, and wanted people to believe that he could be the commander in chief. Went over as very poorly done and had the opposite reaction.

February 20 2011 at 9:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This may be one reason Dukakis lost: I was so furious after watching the debates that I voted for Jesse Jackson. Neither Dukakis nor Bush would answer a single question. They had their rehearsed one-liners and that was all they could say. Debaters should be made to answer the questions or be cut off. If they can't come up with something unprogrammed, they are too stupid to be president. We have had enough of stupid presidents.

February 20 2011 at 6:34 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Don't think I like Mitch Daniel's Math. After all, this war is truly what emptied the surplus. And as far as raising taxes, all the GOP are going to realize that the tax give aways to everyone are going to have to be RECALLED. All my tax breaks this year will put a LITTLE gas in my car. Think about it. Forget charisma we need a president who can do the MATH. The GOP MATH only helps the RICH,not the middle class.

February 20 2011 at 11:13 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I remember Don Meredith saying once that if there was a personality contest between Bud Grant (then coach of the Minnesota Vikings) and Tom Landry (coach of the Dallas cowboys) both of whom were very competent coaches, there wouldn't be a winner. That reminds me of Mitch Daniels.

February 20 2011 at 10:12 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

I used to religiously read Will. He was a pulitzer prize winning columnist that I admired for 20 years. George F Will is a lying republican shill. He will change his opinion the moment the republican party changes its policies. He has never met a republican idea he doesn't like. Again,example:1998 was the warmest year in weather history until 2005, so for 7 years Will said the Earth is cooling down. That's like saying a guy with a temperature of 102 doesn't have a fever because an hour ago it was 104.

February 20 2011 at 10:05 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cayce58's comment

If you're a democrat, Will would be a bad choice--About global warming
this horse is almost dead-You libs well have to find some thing else to
con money out of --Weather you like it or not weather changes every 7 years
we're in the cool cycle-- asbestos is bad, well we the only country not using it --Learn how to use it etc.

February 20 2011 at 12:09 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

We seem to be free of significant indications of competence in Washington today. I am reminded of the old cartoon in which the door of the School for the Gifted labelled "Pull" won't open for the student who is pushing with all his might.
That summarizes the results of administration's attempts to borrow our way to financial responsibility and spend our way to thrift.

February 20 2011 at 9:25 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to oldengineera2's comment

your talking about Bush right? because that is exactly what he did

February 20 2011 at 1:20 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Here's what missing from the above article: In his op-ed dealing with the "charisma of competence", Geo. Will cites excerpts from Daniels' speech at the recent CPAC Convention. It's worth the time to find that speech and see how certain of its contents echo then-candidate Obama in 2008 when he had that exchange with Joe (the plumber) Wertzelbacher; i.e. an more equitable distribution of wealth, re-building the middle class, and giving people at low levels on the economic ladder a chance to earn more and rise. It's all there in Daniels' speech. How is it then that this Republican, touted as presidential timber, isn't a socialist??? The answer, of course, is that he isn't and neither is Obama, conservatives' frothing at the mouth notwithstanding.

February 20 2011 at 8:42 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

Please, I beg of George Will and any American voter who might be considering Mitch Daniel as your presidential candidate, ask the people of Indiana. Daniel was considered by many of his employees as an incompetent executive at Eli Lily and is intensely disliked by a large portion of Indiana residents. You turned your noses up at Indiana's Richard Lugar as a presidential candidate a few years ago - someone who would have been so competent and responsible- don't be taken in by Mitch Daniels so called 'charisma'. He would be a disaster.

February 20 2011 at 7:14 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to beckgebeck2001's comment

As a fellow Hoosier, I agree. But, don't worry there are MANY more issues that he and his family don't care to have exposed. I don't even think he'll run. If he does, he won't win. Trust me. If he does, his wife will divorce him. Again.

February 20 2011 at 8:07 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

"Dukakis had mentioned both ideas in a descriptive summary of what he said Americans had a right to expect from their leaders: Competence, job creation, opportunity, and "American values. Old fashioned values like accountability and responsibility and respect for the truth."
By that measure, Obama is batting 0 for his term so far. More jobs have been lost since Nancy Pelosi became Speaker in 2007 than were lost in the Great Depression. Look it up.

February 19 2011 at 9:24 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to Michael's comment

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