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.

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