THE 1988 election settled at least one question: It was about competence and ideology. Exit polls showed that voters who favored George Bush preferred him on both experience and his overall stands on the issues. Bush and his recruiters have a right to bear this in mind as they go about filling the 4,000-plus subcabinet slots in the executive branch. There are well-intentioned people who regard the executive branch as essentially a management structure. Every four years they exhort presidents-elect to staff their administrations with seasoned, disinterested executives who know how to run big organizations. In their counsel there is often a thinly veiled distaste for political loyalty as a ``litmus test'' in making presidential appointments.
To be sure, presidents shouldn't appoint cronies, hacks, hangers-on, and other mere time-servers to government jobs - which has been all too common throughout American history. But it also is misguided to suggest that presidents should ignore political loyalty - indeed, should deem it almost a disqualifying factor - in tapping subordinates.
The presidency is not simply a matter of efficient management. The presidency is also a political instrument. We elect presidents to do more than just ``faithfully execute'' their duties; we elect them to provide national leadership. And we choose them as the standard bearers for principles and policies they articulate during their campaigns.
One of the first things every new president discovers is how unresponsive the vast governmental machinery can be to his tugs on the levers of power. Strong forces conspire against presidential volition - entrenched interests, bureaucratic inertia, political hostility, congressional assertiveness. To counter these forces, a president must install ``his'' people in seats of influence.
Especially at a time of heightened competition between the executive and legislative branches of government - a competition with institutional roots but which is intensified when the branches are controlled by different political parties - we cannot expect presidents to emasculate their office by taking on officials, however competent as managers, of uncertain loyalty and commitment to the president's program.
In reality, the dichotomy between competence and ideology is phony. Presidents can find ample subordinates who have the skills and integrity to ``faithfully execute'' their public trusts, but who also share the president's vision and, within the law, will work tenaciously to implement that vision.
Appointing such people is a president's prerogative. It is also consistent with the spirit of democracy, for only with the help of aides who are loyal and dedicated as well as skillful and high-minded can presidents achieve the goals for which they are elected.