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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