Why Politics Is Always About Ideology

The candidates are busily debating "competence," but don't be fooled. It's what a president believes in that matters

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Evan Vucci / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop on Thursday, June 7, 2012, in St. Louis, Mo.

Nearly a quarter century ago, on a warm July night in Atlanta, Michael S. Dukakis accepted the Democratic nomination for president. “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence,” Dukakis said. “It’s not about meaningless labels; it’s about American values—old-fashioned values like accountability and responsibility and respect for the truth.” As The New York Times reported the next morning, the ideology v. competence point was designed to blunt George H.W. Bush’s attacks on the Massachusetts governor as a liberal who was out of step with the American mainstream.

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As we know, it didn’t work. Labels may be meaningless, but worldviews are not. On reflection, the Dukakis dichotomy is fundamentally flawed. In politics you can never really separate the execution of a task from the idea that brought that task within the purview of government. To run a government is to be engaged in the world of ideology and values and of making judgments according to those values.

Another Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, will be trying through the next five months or so to convince independent voters to hire him to replace President Obama as America’s CEO. He will emphasize his competence to take over the stewardship of the economy, as his ads put it, on “Day One.”

It’s an interesting and open argument. But one thing is clear: it is also about ideology, about what Romney believes versus what Obama believes. Even a reassuring “Mr. Fix-It” has to work according to a larger compass.

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Which Americans intuitively understand. Last week the New York Times published a dispiriting story about its poll findings that none of the three branches of the federal government so painstakingly constructed in Philadelphia 225 summers ago is approved of by even half of Americans. President Obama is at 47 percent; Congress at 15 percent.

The news in the survey was that the Supreme Court has only 44 percent approve of the job it’s doing. Even more interesting was that three-quarters of those polled say the justices’ personal views affect their rulings. And what is true on the court is even more true in the White House.

Bill Clinton had it right recently when he conceded Romney’s qualifications for the office. The real issue, as Clinton said, is not how a president does the job but what he does in the job. That’s the threshold question this year, and every year.

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