Taking Responsibility for Making Government Work

'SOUR" seems to be the word in American politics these days.The voters are unhappy with Congress: A Public Opinion Strategies poll has found 64 percent of the public disapproving of the job Congress is doing, as opposed to 26 percent approving. President Bush is unhappy with Congress, too, as we know. His unscripted attack on the legislative branch at that fund-raiser in Texas the other night left no doubt about that. But his blast was remarkable not only for its petulance but for his assertion that he does have an agenda he was elected to carry out; this from the man who has admitted to having difficulty with "the vision thing." The public, meanwhile, is (unsurprisingly) less happy with the president than during the rally-round-the-flag days of the Gulf war. A Washington Post/ABC poll giving Mr. Bush a 65 percent overall approval rating nonetheless found 51 percent of its sample agreed the country should have a president move it in a new direction. That's not to say that this sample wouldn't reelect Bush; the same poll had him prevailing, albeit by 47 percent to 37 percent, against a generic Democratic nominee. And the law of physics about bodies in motion tending to stay in motion, and bodies at rest to stay at rest, applies to bodies politic, too: The 1992 election remains Bush's to lose. But other polls, showing the public feels Bush is focusing on foreign policy to the neglect of domestic concerns, suggest that something is amiss. The economy is pinching people. Senate majority leader George Mitchell's recent comparison of Bush to Herbert Hoover stung the president - and surely figured into his Texas outburst. Clearly, there's a lot of opportunity here to command the high ground with a message that captures the voters' hearts and minds. What it comes down to is this: Who will take responsibility for making the government work? How long will the people put up with a political establishment that seems to exist almost totally of self-proclaimed "outsiders"? An Irish friend drops by for lunch on the eve of his departure after six years in the States; his observations on the American way provide some interesting sidelights to the larger political discussion at this point. He is off to Lesotho, where he will advise the government on "inward investment," enticing foreigners and their money into the country. The broad trend of economic and political development in South Africa, and southern Africa more generally, is positive, and this is a hopeful time for landlocked little Lesotho. That the country has a military government gives him pause, but he is expecting to be able to do his job with minimal interference because of an important legacy of British colonial rule: a career civil service, with a "permanent secretary" in charge at each ministry to keep things going fairly efficiently, by African standards at least. Why is government service so disregarded in the States? we wonder over lunch. A basic least-is-best attitude toward government was fundamental to the very founding of the country. At a more practical level, we note that with a significantly smaller chunk of total national production going to government (complaints about high taxes notwithstanding) than in other developed countries, government services tend to go disproportionately to the poor in America, to those most of the electorate sees as "others." A notable exception is Social Security, which Franklin Roosevelt specifically intended as a universal pension program, not a welfare program - and witness its political indestructibility. Education is another service that most Americans are relatively comfortable receiving through public rather than private channels. But for all the attention that education reform has been given in recent years in the United States, that same disregard for service-providers is to be found here as in other government or public functions. It should not go unnoticed that two of the countries which give the US the most concern about economic competitiveness, Germany and Japan, are societies where teaching is an honored profession. Competitiveness isn't just a question of whether USA Inc. is ahead of Japan Inc., as if they were football teams. It is a matter whether individuals will be able to produce within the economy commensurate with what they and their families require as consumers. Without more effective education, they won't be. And human capital is only one issue facing an establishment of political "outsiders" that will have to come inside and get to work.

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