The Illusion of 'Competence'


I don’t have a vested interest in the outcome of the presidential primary contests of either major party, but I do have, perhaps foolishly, a rooting interest in what has become the two-person race for the Democratic nomination. I find myself pulling for Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton, the notorious Mme. Hillarious.

I say "perhaps foolishly" because I don’t want to see either one of them become president and I believe Obama would have the better chance of winning the November election. Clinton, who matches her husband in ruthlessness but lacks his political charm, is the candidate with the better chance to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the Democrats.

Yet I know some Democrats and left-leaning independents who want Clinton for what they see as pragmatic reasons. As someone wrote to me the other day, Obama has limited experience in dealing with the daggers and long knives in Washington. My correspondent believes Clinton would be better able to get things done there. He may be right. And that’s what scares me.

I believe my friend makes the common mistake of equating competence and effectiveness with virtue or progress. He and I disagree a great deal about what in theory government should do. But I don’t know that he would disagree that, in practice, government does more evil than good — even though the good that it does is necessary and, so, arguably, is some of the evil (in a just war, for example).

So it’s possible — maybe — that I could vote in good conscience for a “pro-choice” (in effect, pro-abortion) candidate if that candidate is truly antiwar. Both Clinton and Obama are "pro-choice" and neither is really antiwar. Obama, to be sure opposed the invasion of Iraq, but has voted to continue funding the war and wouldn’t rule out preemptive war against Iran. But John "Boots on the brain" McCain, like the Shrub, will almost certainly destroy far more lives by being pro-war than he will save by being anti-abortion. Especially when you consider that his anti-abortion stand is tepid and equivocal. In short, I remain persuaded that McCain’s next thought on the subject will be his first.

So I think Clinton’s greater ability to be effective inside the beltway is a virtue only if you believe that the things she will accomplish will make our nation better, rather than worse, regardless of how pure or corrupt her motives may be. Some of what she considers good in terms of government programs or policies, others might (and I certainly would) consider bad.

It kind of surprises even me, but I attended a Clinton rally here in Manchester, NH last summer and actually applauded perhaps as many as half a dozen times at things the witch said. I applauded, for example, when she said that she would order the Department of Defense to have on her desk within 60 days of her inauguration a plan for withdrawing our troops from Iraq. I applauded even more when she promised to take better care of our wounded veterans than this administration has done. But when she spoke of deficiencies in the No Child Left Behind Act, mine was, as far as I could tell, the lone voice chanting, “End it, don’t mend it! End it, don’t mend it!”

It seems Clinton and Obama have many goals in common and many of their policies and programs are quite similar and may, in some cases, be virtually identical. If you agree with such policies, you might understandably view Clinton’s experience in dealing with the political establishment in Washington as a plus for the nation as well as for her. But on matters where she is, or both are, wrong (Call them Legion, for they are many) her ability to accomplish those goals would be a negative.

I am not saying Obama has a right view of government, though I think some of the thoughts he has expressed show some insight into and appreciation of our federal system. What I am saying is that I would rather have someone with a right (or at least more right) view of government, even though less effective in advancing it, than someone with a more wrong view of government who would be more effective in getting wrong things enacted.

I had that argument years ago with a friend who supported liberal, "pro-choice" former U.S. Senator John Durkin in a U.S. senate race here in New Hampshire against conservative, pro-life Bob Smith. Durkin was more “competent,” my friend insisted. "But competent to what end?" I asked

I argued this way: Suppose you wanted to go somewhere and you could ride with one of two bus drivers and you knew which one was more competent. He knew the routes and the alternate routes better, was more skilled at safely weaving in and out of traffic, arrived on time more often. But suppose the more competent driver was taking his bus to Nashua, about 18 miles to the south of Manchester and you wanted to go to Concord, the same distance to the north. By my friend’s way of thinking, he would get on the bus with the Nashua-bound driver because he is more competent. Thus my friend would arrive in Nashua, having been very competently transported 18 miles further from his destination.

However calmly and coolly such a decision may be reached, I believe it follows a famous definition of fanaticism: a redoubling of your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.

I do believe my friend was a liberal without knowing it or at least without admitting it. He thought he was just being practical. That’s why he would have taken the bus to Nashua when he wanted to go to Concord.

I believe it was Chesterton who said, “The problem with pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.”

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.