This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on 07/12/2019.
The cornucopia of policy ideas presented by Democratic presidential hopefuls is remarkable mainly in what’s been omitted: the need to overhaul Washington so that it can deliver public services effectively. A huge opportunity awaits any political leader with the nerve to seize it.
A recent survey by political scientist Paul Light found that about 60% of Americans support “very major reform” of Washington. That’s what voters had hoped for when Obama promised “change we can believe in.” When that didn’t work out, 8 million Obama voters turned around and voted for a rich braggadocio who promised to “drain the swamp.”
But Trump’s bluster hasn’t translated into any coherent plan to fix Washington. His executive orders mainly undo Obama’s executive orders, such as removing restrictions on coal-burning power plants. That’s probably not the swamp-draining that most voters hoped for.
Instead of tapping into the broad centrist demand for overhaul, Democrats are rushing to the left. They’re competing with promises of more public freebies (Medicare for all, college debt forgiveness, universal basic income) and with angry sermons about victimization. But voters know that the public fisc is already gushing red ink (the annual deficit is about $10,000 per family), and identity politics is toxic to centrists who believe in self-reliance.
It’s almost as if Trump himself had scripted Democratic positions. He has a feral genius for ridiculing weakness. Trump may not have a vision for dealing with most of America’s challenges, but he likely won’t need one. He knows that Americans hate Washington, and he’s a virtuoso at playing that tune.
Instead of promising the moon, why don’t Democrats promise to clean house? Public opinion is aligned for a historic transformation of Washington. A vision for a simpler, more practical government could appeal not only to centrists but also to Republican voters who know in their hearts that real leadership is impossible without a positive governing vision and moral authority.
Almost any sensible reconfiguration of Washington would dramatically advance the stated goals of both parties:
• Rebooting legacy bureaucracies could marshal the needed resources for climate change and wage stagnation. Runaway bureaucracy is staggeringly expensive. About 30% of the healthcare dollar is spent on administration, or about $1 million per physician. Schools in more than 20 states now have more non-instructional personnel than teachers.
• Republicans want to cut red tape and get government off our backs. A simpler, goals-oriented regulatory framework would eliminate 1,000-page rulebooks for schools, hospitals and employers. Instead of Big Brother breathing down our necks, Washington would become a distant trustee, protecting against miscreants who cross the line, not micromanaging daily life in America.
The sticking point to overhauling Washington is not American voters, but Washington itself. Washington is organized to preserve the status quo. Political leaders are entrapped by their alliances to interest groups. Gosh, we can’t get rid of 1930s programs such as farm subsidies ($16 billion), or inflated wages on infrastructure (about 20% higher than market), or lower taxes for investment professionals ($14 billion), because those interest groups help Washington pols get reelected.
Fig leaves can’t disguise the self-interest of these legacy programs. When Democrats talk about “due process” for teachers and civil servants, voters know this means zero accountability. When they wave the sword of individual rights, voters start holding on to their wallets. Indeed, much of Trump’s voter appeal is his refusal to kowtow to the politics of victimization and correctness.
Republicans aren’t much better. When they talk about stimulating the economy with lower taxes, they usually mean lining the pockets of their supporters by increasing the deficit, not reducing the public waste they deplore. When Republicans talk about deregulation, they don’t usually mean cutting red tape, but cutting regulatory oversight altogether—usually to benefit an industry, not the public. Their anti-regulatory overreach helps explain why the last four Republican administrations have been so ineffective at reining in big government—and, in fact, presided over bureaucratic growth.
Governing shouldn’t be this hard. It doesn’t take a genius to remove mindless red tape from schools and hospitals. No Ph.D. is required to phase out obsolete subsidies and reset priorities. Nor does it take a mind reader to discern what most voters want. Americans want government to be practical. And they want to be practical in their own lives and communities.
Being practical requires that officials and citizens are free to make choices. Then other people need to be free to hold them accountable. None of these choices are available today, because law has supplanted human responsibility. Practicality is illegal in Washington bureaucracy. That’s why, for example, it takes upwards of a decade to get a permit for vital infrastructure projects.
Nothing can get fixed in Washington until responsible humans can make new choices. That’s why the only path to a functioning democracy is to reboot Washington. Officials and citizens alike must be liberated to take responsibility. Instead of being shackled to 1,000-page rulebooks, we must be free to make choices that we think are sensible.
Rebooting Washington is a simple idea, as obvious to most voters as it is radical to most political insiders. The virtues are not hard to explain: It would both reset priorities and revive human agency as the activating mechanism for public choices. Public debate would focus on success and failure, not abstract theories. Electing new leaders would make a difference.
American voters know the system is broken. But it won’t be fixed by making voters choose between a liberal or conservative fork in the road. What Washington needs most is practicality, not ideology. The leader who articulates a principled vision for practical government could seize the day and lead a historic overhaul to restore common sense and dignity to all levels of public responsibility.