In 2003, the year Californians swept Arnold Schwarzenneger into the Governor’s Office, a Democratic friend shared a theory on why poor Gov. Gray Davis had been recalled.
“Some years, people want a plumber,” he shrugged, “and some years, they want glamour. Some years, it’s not enough merely to have competence in the job.”
Ouch. Poor Davis, who, in retrospect, was surely more than a Roto-Rooter among public servants. Certainly it wasn’t as if the Capitol became Cannes after Schwarzenegger slept here.
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But gubernatorial recalls aside, that idea of “mere competence” rang wrong, and still does. It sounds like something that goes without saying, that people can just take for granted. It isn’t. Mere competence is actually a pretty big deal.
I bring this up because competence keeps coming up in this year’s campaign for the White House. Hillary Clinton, it is said, is competent and that’s all.
Not trustworthy. Not charismatic. Not glamorous. Just someone who has spent a long time in her field, a flawed grind who, best case, seems at least less flawed than her competition, someone to hold your nose and settle for.
Well, “A” students can be annoying, and as a speaker, Clinton is no action hero, and who knows what Julian Assange has up his sleeve over at WikiLeaks to make her look like a “Bourne Identity” villain. But a government leader who genuinely knows the job? That’s priceless. And anyone who has spent five minutes in government would celebrate that, not shrug it off.
If, as Malcolm Gladwell posits, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at something; in government, “good enough” has to take at least 5,000 or 7,500. Bureaucracies are brutal and byzantine, and interest groups, once ensconced, dig in like ticks.
It’s rare to accomplish anything of consequence without deep knowledge of the legal, political, behavioral, social, financial and electoral levers. If you don’t believe it, try doing what politicians do 24/7: Get some stranger to give you, say, 25 percent more time, money or attention than they’d prefer to at the moment. Good luck.
But competence is the difference between talk and action. Competence in government is President Lyndon Johnson calculating the political risks and then twisting the arms of Southern Democrats to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress. It’s the experienced diplomacy and Marshall Plan legislation after World War II that enabled the rebuilding of Europe.
Competence passed Medicare, launched the space program, brought down the Berlin Wall, and connected the nation with trains, planes and freeways.
Californians have competence to thank for the state’s unrivaled system of public higher education, and for their access to the coast, which might just as easily have gone the way of the East Coast’s Hamptons. Some of the smartest and most competent people I know do invaluable work as federal, state, county and municipal government staff members.
Even flawed competence can make a huge difference. Say what you will about his poor choices on immigration, but Gov. Pete Wilson’s competence got the secondhand smoke out of California’s bars and restaurants. And before Davis’ political career was cut short by the dot-com bust and 2001 energy blackouts, he signed the first state law in the U.S. to require automakers to limit emissions and launched the state’s abducted-child warning system of Amber Alerts.
These days, it is largely due to the extreme competence of the longest-serving governor in state history that California has emerged as unscathed as it has from the Great Recession – not only financially stable and prepared for the next downturn, but with the emotional bandwidth to consider the challenges of drought, wildfire and global warming. In 2010, when the ship of state was perilously leaky, Californians were lucky to have a 10,000-hour plumber-politician like Gov. Jerry Brown.
Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, incompetence is also a well-known government feature. And some people can sit at a desk for a lifetime and learn nothing.
But the ugliness of Donald Trump’s campaign hints at a level of incompetence that would be untenable in the office. It’s not clear he even wants the job as much as he wants attention. The lies, the name-calling, the vindictive behavior, the attacks on immigrants, women, war heroes, fellow Republicans, the handicapped, even a baby at one of his rallies – this guy’s competence is an issue, not just in the résumé sense, but in the sense of whether there’s something psychologically the matter with him.
In this context, even for Republicans, four years of good-enough shouldn’t be underestimated. You may not like Clinton’s style, or want her in your book club, or believe that she cares more about you than checking a box on her list of life goals, but I’ll take a grind any day over a grifter. Know-how matters more than most of us realize. And in the face of a know-nothing in the Oval Office, there’s a lot to be said for mere competence.