The Muddy Middle

Don't look for any serious discussion about the size and role of government to emerge from this presidential campaign.

Sometimes, presidential campaigns and the administrations that follow them revolve around grand debates about the state of the federal government. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt attacked Herbert Hoover's failure to address the nation's economic crisis, initially thinking that part of the problem was an excess of bureaucracy. As president, however, he came to the opposite conclusion, and turned his New Deal into an effort to dramatically increase the role of the government in the economy.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected on a pledge to scale back the massive bureaucratic complex that had arisen since Roosevelt's time. Reagan's later retreat in the face of opposition on Capitol Hill doesn't change the fact that he staked his political future on a vision of government's role that differed sharply from the conventional political wisdom of the day.

In 1992, Bill Clinton sought nothing less than a "reinvention" of government. He may not have fully met his goal of ushering in the end of the "era of big government," but his administration also represented a sharp break with the past and an opportunity for serious discussion about the future of government.

These were landmark elections in making the scope of government an issue of national debate. Most of the time, though, federal matters play at best a secondary role and tend to get lost in a welter of conflicting proposals-sometimes from the same candidate-for the government to take on or to shed responsibilities. This year's election is shaping up to be one of those fought out in the muddy middle.

To this point in the campaign season, discussions about what the executive branch should and shouldn't try to do have been limited, at best. And when they have occurred, they have tended to fall into the "more heat than light" category.

For example, in a speech in late July, President Bush opened a line of attack on Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., from the right. The Democratic nominee, he said, "has spent almost 20 years in the federal government and has concluded it just isn't big enough." But then, without skipping a beat, Bush launched into a lengthy description of his efforts to beef up the government's role in homeland security by organizing and staffing a massive new Cabinet department.

Kerry, for his part, has been no easier to pin down on the role of government than he has on other key issues. Indeed, Democratic insiders with an interest in civil service and management matters are engaged in something of a battle for the candidate's soul. On one side, federal labor leaders are focused on killing Bush's effort to let companies compete for federal work and on guaranteeing traditional civil service protections in new personnel systems at the Defense and Homeland Security departments. On the other side, Clinton-era veterans yearn to pick up right where they left off with the reinvention agenda-which, among things, endorsed the idea of public-private job competitions and an overhaul of civil service rules.

This much is clear: Democrats aren't going to walk into a right-wing trap on bureaucratic issues this time. Barack Obama, an Illinois Senate candidate and rising Democratic star, electrified the faithful-and earned a standing ovation-with the following section of his Democratic convention keynote address: "Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things. People don't expect government to solve all their problems."

Both Kerry and Bush are trying to position themselves as candidates who defend an appropriate, and substantial, role for the federal government in the areas of pressing concern to Americans-such as homeland security and health care. Likewise, each is also trying to position himself as a slayer of unnecessary and unpopular bureaucracy. In the meantime, issues the two candidates are not addressing seriously-such as how the expansion of the $300-billion-plus-per-year federal contracting industry shows that companies now work hand-in-glove with agencies on virtually every project of any size or consequence-are ripe for investigation and vigorous debate. But it's not likely you'll hear much about them this campaign season.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.