Fed Bashing Out of Style

September 1, 2000

That strange sound federal employees are hearing from the 2000 presidential campaign is George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Ralph Nader going “positive” toward public service. Although there is still plenty of time before Nov. 7 for things to turn ugly, this presidential campaign has already set a record for kind words said about government and its employees. It is as if each candidate took a pledge to either say something nice or not say anything at all.

Anyone who doubts the new climate only needs to read the following midsummer campaign clips and guess whether they came from Bush, Gore or Nader:

  • “Public service is an honorable calling, and there are many now serving in Washington who view it just that way. But their voices are easily drowned out in the din of battle. . . . This should not be the spirit of Washington. This is no way to encourage people to serve, and no way to build a legacy of accomplishment.”

  • “It’s important that people inside our government, in the civil service, be given more of a public hearing for their expertise. . . . They know how to solve these problems. . . . But they are walking around with invisible chains, unable to speak, because their leaders are not opening up their insight, their genius and their public concern.”

Those who guessed that the statements came from Gore are stuck in the bad old days when Republicans spent their campaigns denigrating government and the public interest community warned about shadowy government conspiracies and abuses of power. In fact, the first clip came from Bush on the campaign trail in June, and the second from Nader, who spoke at the National Press Club in July.

Nader was hardly auditioning to join the Republican ticket in his speech. His campaign has been marked by harsh rhetoric toward the corporate interests that he says have captured the Democratic and Republican parties while penetrating the federal government through what he describes as corporate “shuttles to put their own executives in high government positions.”

Similarly, Bush was hardly holding out an olive branch to the Green Party, even though the Green Party is threatening to do just enough damage to Gore to make Michigan and California more competitive for Republicans. On the contrary, Bush has promised a new wave of privatization that would presumably benefit the corporate interests Nader so vilifies. Yet, even as Bush and Nader disagree about the causes of public distrust, they have embraced a mutual respect for the federal service, and a common commitment to fewer layers of senior and middle management.

Ironically, the toughest rhetoric about government came from Gore on the stump in Nashville, Tenn., where he celebrated his achievements in cutting the bloated federal bureaucracy to Kennedy-era levels. He is even more likely than Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan to mention government waste in his campaign speeches. “You shouldn’t have to fill out endless forms, or worry about somebody who’s having a bad day giving you the runaround,” Gore said in January 1999. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to expect that every week will bring more examples of obvious waste and inefficiency.” But like his opponents in the campaign, Gore always highlights the honorable role public servants can play in making those endless forms and waste disappear.

This era of good feeling toward public service involves much more than continued prosperity, though the polls suggest Americans are loath to criticize anyone who might have something to do with the long economic expansion. Rather, it is the logical product of historic events.

First, Americans believe that the federal government is much more efficient and well run than it used to be. Gore clearly deserves much of the credit. The stiffness that bedevils him on the campaign trail also speaks to his stubbornness about improving government. Even pundits, including myself, who believe that Gore’s reinventing government campaign has more sizzle than substance, have to admire the recent gains in customer service at agencies such as the Social Security Administration. As customer satisfaction has risen, so has public intolerance for the traditional war-on-waste rhetoric that did so much damage to public confidence.

Second, the Republican Party is now being led in part by big-state governors who recognize the role of front-line government employees in delivering services. For instance, it is no surprise that Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, has become “like a dog on a bone,” as he calls himself, about rebuilding the federal government’s ability to compete for its share of talented employees. As a former mayor, county executive and governor, Voinovich knows there is no payoff in criticizing the people who make government work. It is a lesson that Bush’s chief domestic strategist, Steven Goldsmith, learned as mayor of Indianapolis and one that framed his thinking as he built his candidate’s reform agenda for flattening the federal hierarchy.

This bipartisan, or tripartisan, consensus is essential for legislative action next year. Absent the familiar campaign promises to rid the government of fat, lazy bureaucrats, Congress and the President will have a mostly clean slate on which to write the legislation needed in this brutally competitive labor market.

Paul C. Light is the author of
The New Public Service
(Brookings Institution Press, 1999).