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My Dear David Brooks: Federal Incompetence Began Long Before Trump


David Brooks is more than a writer, he is a lyricist, composing a songbook of America’s character. He has written eloquently, not just about the “resume virtues,” success, wealth, and fame, that occupy so much of our culture, but about the “eulogy virtues,” kindness, loyalty, bravery and honesty, for which we would like to be remembered.

Self-awareness, however, is as difficult for Brooks as for any of us in the reviled Washington establishment. Perhaps it is like being in the John Hancock Tower, the tallest building in Boston: It offers breathtaking views of the little people below because it is the only building from which you cannot see the John Hancock Tower.

In Brooks’ recent column in The New York Times, “The Coming Incompetence Crisis,” he alerts us that President Trump, having filled only 22 of 553 positions requiring Senate confirmation, is not populating government with enough speed to maintain his administration’s incompetence. As he looks out from his high window, it is understandable why Brooks, like much of Washington, is concerned.

Ah, Yes, We Could Have Had Queen Competent

Who among us would not return to those thrilling days preceding this administration, when our capital was plump with competence? What argument could we form against making competence great again, as great as it has ever been in the Washington of our day?

If only we had elected most competent presidential candidate in American history, Hillary Clinton. “There has never been any man or woman more qualified for this office than Hillary Clinton,” President Obama said of the candidate who gave us the Russian reset and walked away from the war she started in Libya, leaving behind a smoldering terrorist breeding ground. Certainly, the competence with which Mrs. Clinton managed HillaryCare rivals the great, early accomplishments of the Trump administration. Just last year, Mrs. Clinton ran a campaign of such unrelenting competence that she lost to an politically novice real estate developer, surrendering states Democrats had not lost since Microsoft released Windows 3.1, going back a quarter-century.

Still, Mrs. Clinton’s proficiency pales in comparison to the skill and agility with which President Trump’s predecessor performed the ballet of governance. Barack Obama promised “pay as you go budgeting,” then left us $20 trillion dollars in the hole, deepened our commitment to endless wars while pledging to exit them, spurned lobbyists until he hired them, drew inviolable red lines that melted into Syrian sand, and gave us the Affordable Care Act, which made health care less affordable, although it didn’t matter because we couldn’t keep our doctors anyway.

Rare is the professional Washingtonian who does not yearn for the days when we colonized government with such competence. Imagine if we had less competent leadership than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when ISIS rose from JV team to NBA Champions. Where would we be today?

A Little More Competence Like That and We’re Over

And who doesn’t admire the expertise with which the competent class grew Washington’s economy at the expense of America’s economy while protecting the next generation from prosperity? Or the optimism with which they promise that the next top-down, artificial political program from Washington will work better than the last one?

Still, the competent class has not lost patience with us. Even now, as with Brooks, they remind us of their competence, hoping we will rise near their sophisticated heights to express gratitude. Who can blame them for occasionally laughing at the rube in the work shirt with his name on it, not the transparent clothes of Washington’s emperors?

Strangely enough, one day America said “No” to such unwavering competence, judging that proficiency in more of the same would be fatal. They rolled a hand-grenade under competence’s door and, now, revel in the remains.

Today, we suffer unaccustomed incompetence: A reliable justice who will sit on the Supreme Court for decades and stop it from legislating. A much-praised air strike against Syria that set Russia back on its heels while resetting Sino-Russian relations. The world again defined by solid lines. A president who rolls back regulatory arrogance and treats working people and their tax money with respect.

Far down the road, beyond a public sector blind to its insistent failure, perhaps we will renew our regard for the expertise of public servants. Until then, though we cannot see it from the broad windows on the high floors of the Washington establishment, Donald Trump did not bring down the competent class. They became inconsequential. Competence in the pursuit of what no longer works is not a virtue; it is an irrelevance.