The Incompetence Party

The Democrats’ biggest problem isn’t Bernie Sanders. It’s that many voters doubt the party’s ability to govern anymore.

By Daniel Henninger  February 12, 2020

Now that Bernie Sanders—once an obscure socialist senator from Vermont—is officially the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, it is time to confront what that means.

It does not mean the U.S. is flirting with socialism. That’s not going to happen. The meaning of Bernie’s ascent is that the Democratic Party, older even than he is, has simply run out of gas.

The Democrats resemble Europe’s aging political parties—Britain’s Labour, France’s Socialists, Germany’s Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. All have simply deflated with voters.

Signs of public fatigue with the Democrats could be seen in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Besides incompetence, the big story out of Iowa was low turnout. In New Hampshire the story was voter indecision. Once past Bernie’s 25% cement-block base, many voters were flipping a coin in the voting booth to pick from the other candidates.

What does it mean that Elizabeth Warren, by now a household name, got dropped to fourth place? Joe Biden’s humiliating fifth is a personal disaster, but what does that say about the party itself?

Circling overhead is Mike Bloomberg, supposedly the party’s savior. The truth is Barack Obama was the party’s final savior, and a second coming isn’t likely. Recall the talk after the 2016 election about how the Democrats had “no bench.” They just rolled benchless into 2020.

The Democrats’ floundering to find a candidate is deeper than the split between moderates and the left. It looks to me like the accumulated costs of its long history as the self-declared party of government are finally coming due.

The party’s problem is that it doesn’t look competent anymore. The Iowa caucus debacle came on top of the Trump impeachment, another low-turnout event with the public. People began telling reporters that the three-year death struggle between Democrats and President Trump wasn’t their idea of Washington’s purpose.

So what, other than hunting Donald Trump, does the Democratic Party stand for?

A recurring argument of this column is that in the U.S. and Europe, the presumed efficiency of governments has been worn down by the programs and responsibilities they’ve created for themselves, some with good intentions. By now, it’s just too much.

During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt struck a defining bargain with the public: Cede to the government expanded powers over the details of American life, and government will administer it efficiently. For the public, giving government the power to regulate and rule was supposed to be a net plus.

The bargain behind Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All, funded by new taxes on the middle class, is that it too will be a net plus. Come Election Day in November, will 50% of the electorate actually believe Democrats today could competently administer a national health-care system in the U.S.?

Mr. Sanders, who filed as a Democrat for this election, isn’t that much of an outlier. All his rivals, including the “moderates,” are proposing more additions to the already massive government labyrinth they’ve built for decades.

But in those places where the modern Democratic Party is in charge, they often govern badly or incompetently on a grand scale. Misgovernance related to crime, homelessness, poor schools and affordability has become the symbol of Democratic control in large U.S. cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis.

U.S. census data shows people voting with their feet, moving out of the Northeast and Far West into the less bureaucratized Southern and Mountain states. A major reason for these internal refugee flows is that Democratic legislatures and city councils—New York, Seattle, San Francisco—reflexively pass progressive policies disconnected from commercial or social reality.

Mike Bloomberg’s experience as a Democratic presidential candidate is a case study in the party’s flight from basic competence.

The former Republican New York City mayor is running on his record of proven ability, first building his company from nothing into greatness, then running a complex city. But party dogma has forced Mr. Bloomberg to disavow stop-and-frisk, one of the policies that restored order to New York amid a crime crisis.

That success secured Mr. Bloomberg’s reputation as a competent public manager. Under his Democratic successor, the progressively pure Bill de Blasio, crime is rising again, along with a generalized sense of administrative incompetence.

Joe Biden tried to run on a greatest hits of legislation. It didn’t sell. Elizabeth Warren detailed her expansions of FDR-like government, and voters ran from it.

Look at who’s No. 1 and 2. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. One is 78, the other is 38, and both are running on not much more than sentiments, levitating themselves above mundane questions of basic competence.

It’s notable that Mr. Trump’s approval rating has risen while the Democrats debated, campaigned and impeached. Maybe amid the fog of Washington’s nonstop wars, voters are making choices about government competence, and concluding that Mr. Trump is by and large what he claimed to be—a can-do businessman. Imagine voting for that.





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