Presidential debates inevitably send the Beltway a-dither. Who will win? Which aspirant will deliver the best zinger? Who will look like a lost puppy or have an ugly or obtuse moment? And who will viewers and the media find likable?
Thursday’s Republican debate is inciting extra anticipation. Not least is the Trump factor. The Donald is sure to bluster and talk trash, and some observers hope to see him crater the same way Ross Perot did when he squared off against Al Gore on Larry King. Maybe Ted Cruz will turn his fierce debate skills toward Trump. Polling at 6 percent and not much loved in the Senate, Sen. Cruz has little to lose.
Who will be in Cleveland, Ohio is another question fueling chatter. We know there will be a second amateur on stage—Ben Carson. Will he move beyond his talking points? Will he say anything that might hurt his odds at being considered for vice president? Additionally, only the 10 top-polling candidates are invited to Quicken Loans Arena to show their stuff, which may prove a deathblow to the excluded candidates. Bye-bye Lindsay Graham, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry and Jim Gilmore?
In such an overcrowded field, the candidates will be under pressure to make their voice heard. There will be plenty of the usual Pablum: repeal Obamacare, no gun control, cut taxes, protect religious freedom and so forth. With everyone hitting most of the same notes (and trying to out-shout Trump), there is a real opportunity for a candidate to distinguish himself by explaining in detail how to fix government.
This is a decidedly juicy topic for conservatives. Public trust in government is very low, according to Pew Trust polling, and John Q. Public has told Gallup pollsters that government is a bigger problem than either unemployment or the economy. This popular discontent cannot be chalked up to mere crankiness. Media stories about government gaffes are pretty regular fare. The hack of the Office of Personnel Management’s database is only the latest high-profile malfunction.
Government failure is real and the empirical evidence is overwhelming. Whether one consults Paul Light’s compendium of government cock-ups, Peter Schuck’s 400-page “Why Government Fails So Often,” John Dilulio’s “Bring Back the Bureaucrats” or Steven Teles’ pithy article, “Kludgeocracy in America,” the takeaway is roughly the same: the federal government has taken on too many responsibilities, some of which it is ill-suited to address.
Additionally, the layering of policies and rules atop agencies have left them mission-torn and triaging their various responsibilities. Policies have become grotesquely complex and often are administered through baroque webs of state, local and private-sector proxies that would make Rube Goldberg chortle. As the National Commission on Public Service put it more than a decade ago:
“There are too many decision-makers, too much central clearance, too many bases to touch, and too many overseers with conflicting agendas… accountability is hard to discern and harder still to enforce.”
Conservative complaints about big, pernicious government are age-old. To stand out in Thursday’s debate, a candidate will need to do more than denounce big government and bash bureaucrats. He will need to demonstrate that he has a grasp of the $3.4 trillion, complex beast that is the government. He also ought to give clear evidence that he has considered which things the federal government can do well, which activities it can do better and which policy areas it should exit. And, critically, he must demonstrate that he has the temperament to work with Congress, whose laws are the source for much of what ails the government.