AS THE presidential campaign decamps from New Hampshire and the focus moves south and west, new issues will take command of the debate: immigration, a looming recession, probably some iteration of "family values." And now that everyone has established his or her bona fides as a change agent, different themes will emerge. But one subtext for 2008 was audible Tuesday night in the speeches of candidates from both parties, and that is a rejection of the incompetence and ideological extremism that has defined the Bush era in Washington.
John McCain is a proud Republican, and he believes in a limited role for government. But, he added pointedly in his victory speech, "What government is expected to do it must do with competence, resolve, and wisdom." McCain didn't mention the words "Iraq" or "Katrina." He didn't have to.
Even Mitt Romney, who has defended President Bush against criticism from McCain and others, is pushing his managerial skills as a curative for political gridlock. "It's time to send someone to Washington who will actually get the job done," he repeated in his speech Tuesday. Romney even took credit for the Massachusetts healthcare law, deciding, at least for that one night, that a concrete government achievement was a bigger plus than nanny-state mandates were a minus.
On the Democratic side, the vision of government's role was more expansive, but even here the candidates emphasized competence and can-do spirit - government not as a direct actor but more as a facilitator and backstop. In her victory speech, Hillary Clinton mentioned three important areas where the Bush administration failed to protect consumers: the subprime mortgage market, predatory student loan companies, and rapacious health insurers.
Barack Obama, whose belief in Americans as wise consumers extends to a healthcare plan that will cover everyone if only insurance is affordable enough, knows this will require the restoration of the public's faith in government. Repeatedly, all the candidates mentioned trust, transparency, respect, honesty, and cooperation - qualities that have been degraded by the take-no-prisoners mentality in Washington.
No candidate drew the connection explicitly, but for seven years Washington incompetence has been abetted, even created, by ideology: a contempt for government that allowed cronies and hacks to run sensitive agencies. So understaffed inspectors allow lead paint to coat children's toys. At FEMA, "Brownie" watches the waters rise. Conservative true believers are given responsibility for privatizing the Iraqi economy. The disasters these uncredentialed loyalists helped create are myriad. It will take a thorough brooming out to restore a government as diligent and capable as the American people.