In an election year, this is the season of rehearsals. Both parties are assembling their repertoires of policies, proposals, and pitches for the big opening nights at the national conventions in late summer. The stage managers are still rushing about, the candidates are practicing their lines, and the issues-orchestra is tuning up. Somewhere under the Social Security violins, the education kettledrum, and the environmental violas, one can hear the faint notes of a government-reform clarinet. It is not the most dramatic or prestigious instrument in the orchestra, but without it, the performance could fall flat somewhere in the second act.
Over the past two weeks, voters with good ears could not have missed the good-government melodies coming from the orchestra pits of George W. Bush and Al Gore. The music promises voters a government that is more modern, responsive, and efficient.
To some degree, the fine details of these promises are less important than their presence in the candidates' campaign repertoires, say political consultants and pollsters. Government reform "is more a metaphor than an issue," said Dick Morris, a former adviser to Bill Clinton and to various Republicans. "Bush is using it to show he is knowledgeable about government ... [and Gore] is using it to show he is moving to the center."
Gore's government-reform record and proposals bolster his long-standing credentials as a New Democrat who is enthusiastic about technology and is eager to reinvent stodgy government agencies rather than eliminate them, as Republicans have urged. He can point to a seven-year record of accomplishment, assert a savings to taxpayers of $108 billion, and boast of a reduction of hundreds of thousands of people in the federal government's civilian work force.
"Government efficiency and a family-friendly, consumer-oriented government fit into a lot of things we are talking about," such as long-term health care and Medicaid payments for at-home care, said Gore campaign spokesman Douglas Hattaway.
Bush's government-reform proposals are "symbolic" that he "is a reformer and is not a creature of Washington, [and that he is] committed to common-sense, bipartisan reforms to make Washington work better," said campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan.
Bush's reform plank also underscores his "compassionate conservative" credentials by allowing him to simultaneously support popular government programs, such as Social Security, education, and Medicare, while offering substantial changes to them. Bush is offering "a new way of governing for the new economy" that emphasizes decentralized government services, said Stephen Goldsmith, Bush's chief domestic policy adviser, who served as mayor of Indianapolis from 1992 until earlier this year.
Even Democratic thinkers say that Bush is on the right track. "That's exactly right ... reinventing government is the perfect tool for him," said Robert D. Atkinson, a research director at the Democratic Leadership Council's Progressive Policy Institute.
Stressing government reform and modernization also armors Bush against criticism from the Democratic camp that the Texas governor merely wants to kill popular government programs, said Paul C. Light, the director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, and a Government Executive columnist. "This is exactly the right tone for Republicans in this era. The American public has no tolerance for a `gut-and-cut' agenda." Indeed, Bush's government-reform speeches are so unlike recent Republican rhetoric that they appear to borrow much from the New Democrat agenda, said Atkinson and Light.
In turn, Bush's government-reform stance gives him more opportunities to tag Gore as a complacent, do-nothing candidate who is unwilling to tinker with sometimes-faulty government programs. Thus Lawrence B. Lindsey, a Bush adviser on economics and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, could charge recently that Gore's reluctance to accept partial privatization of Social Security accounts, Medicare services, and education programs threatens continued economic growth.
Bush's government-reform proposals also give him the standing-and give the media an opportunity-to critique Gore's efforts to reform government over the past eight years, said Light. "I don't think reinventing [government] is a major campaign issue, but [Bush] is challenging Gore on the three or four main policies that Gore has worked on and saying, `There is less than meets the eye.' "
But whatever the short-term value of Bush's government-reform emphasis, the issue is still a background note. Most voters will decide on a candidate based on other issues, such as the economy and Social Security, said G. Evans Witt, the president of Princeton Survey Research Associates.
Nevertheless, both candidates have a list of reform accomplishments to tout. Upon entering the White House in 1993, Gore established and pushed his National Performance Review, which evolved into the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. This effort has helped streamline some government agencies, especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency; reduced the federal civilian work force by 350,000; and greatly eased the public's access to civil servants by adding more phone lines and receptionists, Light said.
To counter Gore's record, however, the Bush campaign cites a July 1999 report by the General Accounting Office that threw cold water on the claimed cost savings of Reinventing Government. The report calls attention to statements by former White House officials that taxpayer savings might have been only $30 billion.
Light is also skeptical about some of the improvements claimed by Gore, saying that almost all of the civilian workforce reduction was the result of military base closures at the end of the Cold War. Although Gore's efforts have improved some government agencies and eased the public's access to civil servants, "what you get is a very nice person at the end of the line who cannot do anything to solve your problem," said Light, whose conclusion is based on polls of commercial workers who frequently deal with civil servants.
But Democrats can attack Bush's record, too. They note that Texas' government work force grew by 5,500 workers between 1994 and 1998, to a total of 268,005. They also cite limited government services for low-income Texans, and Bush's unmet promise to create a state inspector general to ride herd on the bureaucracy.
At the same time, the Gore chorus can highlight popular federal programs that have had a direct impact on Texans, such as Head Start and the Clinton program to hire 100,000 police officers throughout the nation. "He hasn't kept the promises he made for reform in Texas ... [and] he's trying to cover up for his lack of experience by making criticisms," Gore spokesman Hattaway said of Bush.
In response, Bush's team touts the governor's reform proposals and his record in Texas, which includes his consolidation of training programs and Bush's "Excellence in Government" seminars, which brought in private-sector management experts to work with state bureaucrats.
The Bush camp can also criticize Gore's impact on Texas. A proposal by Bush to let high-tech companies operate some of Texas' welfare agencies failed in May 1997 after the White House refused to grant those agencies a needed waiver from federal regulations. Unions had opposed the measure, saying it would have cut thousands of jobs.
The fate of that Texas welfare program reflects a consistent difference between the two candidates. Both candidates are eager to promote use of the Internet through so-called "e-government" proposals, under which citizens could use the Internet to get easy access to agencies, submit documents, gather information, and plead cases. But on the more sensitive issue of restructuring how federal agencies do their business-perhaps by giving their work to private contractors, including high-tech companies and qualified religious groups-Bush has shown a greater willingness to cut civil service jobs. For example, Bush called for 40,000 civil service management slots to be left empty when the aging managers now occupying them retire, and he says that White House officials "haven't reinvented government, they've just reshuffled it."
Gore has not called for any further workforce reductions, although he said that e-government tools would by 2004 allow people to see that today's agencies are "as outdated and antiquated as government [was] before the telephone."
Bush's proposal to leave 40,000 jobs unfilled is great, Light maintained, because it shows that he understands the basic issue of structure in any government reform. "If you don't talk about structure, you're going nowhere." For example, Bush said on June 9 that the existence of 117 federal training programs managed by 15 agencies makes it difficult to measure the effectiveness of each one and to eliminate the failed programs or reward the good ones. That's just what American voters want to hear, said Light, because while they support most government programs, they generally believe these programs are inefficiently run.
Overall, Bush gains from this good-government debate against Gore, say pundits and pollsters. Although this debate won't decide the election, the best that Democrats can hope for at this point, said Atkinson, is that "Gore might break even here."