The enduring evil of the Bush years

Boy, has this been a bad week for the Republicans. Threepeat of safe seats lost, McCain floating off in dreamland, Bush casting his cloak of awfulness over the whole enterprise, broke, squabbling. I know, McCain gave a fairly good environmental speech. Anything else? I didn’t think so.

In fact, it has gotten so bad so quickly that I’m not enjoying it much, partly because it just feels personally crummy when your side is piling on rather than competing, but more because it’s getting too easy, and that’s actually bad for the country. I’m reflecting in this mode partly because I will be teaching a group of Chinese officials about innovation this week , and one of the propositions I intend to put before them is the general idea of figure-ground complementarity. Versions of this are: if you didn’t have an environment you couldn’t have a self; if your audience really is a blank slate you can’t make art; and (this one best articulated by Marty Levin and Bryna Sanger in an underappreciated book), that effective innovation requires an institutional environment that resists it.

An easy extension of these ideas is that Democrats need respectable, responsible resistance from conservatives to be good Democrats, just as tennis and poker players are no good facing potzers and fish. Another is that Obama needs to beat a contender, not a pushover, to be a good president. If you thought the last eight years were a nightmare, you should expect a completely unrestrained period of Democratic governance to be almost as awful. We’re not at risk of turning into Venezuela or Zimbabwe, but an over-the-top rout of Republicans is likely to turn to ashes in our mouths: “Not Bush” is not a governing principle, “it’s our turn to sit on the safety valve and go crazy” isn’t either.

The immediate trigger for my gloom is the specter that John McCain will not last even to the fall as a considerable (even if not even very good) target to run against, or even as a basically serious person. A few more weeks or months of his reckless, untethered, vaporous policy noodlings, coupled with maybe two or three more instances of the really loony affect in which he wrapped his “hopes for Iraq”, and his press cocoon will disintegrate. There’s a real risk, in my view, that he will become a figure of ridicule, ridicule unfortunately facilitated by his age and subconscious upfloating of centuries of dotty old geezer jokes. How is Obama supposed to run against Polonius with a straight face, or without seeming flatly insulting? It’s already difficult to respond to a lot of McCain’s campaign politely, on the issues and in the face of the constant wrong-footed moves, like having to turf out a flack for the Burmese generals.

Of course, I’m expecting him to lose debates with Obama, but I’m expecting overkill, an embarrassing performance that can’t even be classified as a defeat because it never rises to the level of conflict.

An outcome like this, in which Obama is forced by decency and appearances to pull punches and protect his opponent’s ego and image – again, I think that is a real possibility – is not an electoral risk but it is a very serious governance risk. Obama, or any president, needs the status only obtainable by fighting a real contest against creditable opposition and winning, because he is going to have to go into battle against factions in his own party, a party that will be less subject to discipline insofar as it has an enormous majority, and more importantly against immaturity, romanticism, fear, and fecklessness in the population.

The blame for this state of affairs lies entirely with Bush and the Republican enterprise of the last few years (maybe a little with Democrats for not being able to beat him decisively at the polls). They’re reaping the just and fair whirlwind of a cynical, unprincipled, unconservative substitution of winning elections at any cost to institutions, and plain old money greed, for a theory or method of governance. Their incompetence and venality has now driven decent and credible people out of their nomination process, so they wind up stuck with what appears to be a hopeless candidate at the top, and vacant seats to win down the ticket. I despise them for all of it, but most of all because they have set themselves on a path to a collapse so complete, into candidacies and incumbencies so pathetic, that we will have an election, and then a government, without the kind of resistance, testing, and pushback that is essential to any policy-making process and administration.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.