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OPINION | High hopes will never make the government run perfectly

BERNIE Sanders promises that if he is elected, no one will ever have to pay college tuition for public colleges or universities ever again.

Kamala Harris promises that if she is elected, the average teacher in America would receive a $13,500-per-year raise. Elizabeth Warren promises that if she is elected, no American parents would ever pay more than 7 percent of their income on childcare. Julian Castro promises that if he is elected, he will create 10 million new jobs in the “clean energy economy.” Pete Buttigieg promises that he will cut the number of incarcerated Americans in half without any increase in crime. Andrew Yang says that if he is elected, all citizens over age 18 will get $1,000 per month from the government, forever.

And Joe Biden, the supposed sensible centrist in the Democratic primary, promises that if elected, he will cure cancer.

Keep that in mind the next time Biden is unaware that a fossil fuel company executive is co-hosting a fundraiser for him; or Warren says releasing the video about her alleged Native American heritage was a mistake; or Harris insists that she misheard some question, which explains her controversial answer.

Governing well is difficult, people. Enacting some sort of sweeping change like the candidates are now proposing would be extremely difficult; it is just about inevitable that the program would not work as promised at first, and it would take time to get it right. (And this all assumes that the votes are there to pass their ideas into law in the first place.)

It’s not just a matter of “can taxpayers afford it?” although that is a good question to ask when someone comes up with huge ideas like these. An even fairer question is, “what makes you confident that the federal government will implement this program effectively?”

During the Bush years, a common argument in the comments sections of Daily Kos and other liberal corners was that George W. Bush and his administration were in effect a giant sabotage operation within the federal government. Because the administration did not ideologically support a big, powerful, far-reaching federal government, they were constantly undermining the natural competence that the federal government could achieve if they only had the support from the top. Thus, everything that went wrong in the Bush years — the bad intelligence surrounding Iraq’s WMDs, Abu Gharib, Hurricane Katrina response, and the circumstances that led to the real estate bubble, the Wall Street meltdown and the Great Recession — could be laid at the feet of an administration that never really wanted government to succeed in the first place.

(I know, I know, the whole idea of Bush as some anti-government saboteur is nonsense. This is the administration that added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, created the Department of Homeland Security, enacted No Child Left Behind, and in a Labor Day address to union workers, famously said, “we have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”)

Barack Obama and the people around him believed in the capacity of the federal government to do good. Their faith in the power of the federal government to change peoples’ lives for the better was unshakable. And after a great deal of effort, the finest team Obama could assemble ended up with a website tracking stimulus spending that was full of bad data, “shovel-ready” projects that the president later admitted weren’t so shovel-ready, the taxpayers underwriting the failed Solyndra solar panel manufacturer, Operation Fast and Furious, the hacking of the Office of Personnel Management, veterans dying while waiting for care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, lavish spending on conferences for the General Services Administration, $126 billion in overpayments to beneficiaries and contractors in 2015, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the blindsiding attack on the consulate in Benghazi, the disastrous launch of, the scandal and revelations of Edward Snowden, the rise of ISIS, a foreign policy team that steadily misjudged and underestimated growing threats from Russia and China, and a $500 million program to train Syrians to fight ISIS that resulted in “four or five” fighters. Oh, and they bailed out General Motors when the company knew it was selling cars that could kill you if your key chain was too heavy.

The problem was not that Obama or anyone in his administration wasn’t trying hard enough, or that they didn’t want effective government programs badly enough, or that they didn’t believe in the abilities of the government enough — it was probably the opposite. They had far too much faith in government agencies’ abilities to achieve a task without delays, cost overruns, bad decisions, wasteful spending, petty corruption, and grinding bureaucratic inertia.

One of the points I tried to make in my book, “The Weed Agency,” is that plenty of federal government employees are good people, work hard, and do their best; often working against a system that is not designed to encourage or reward individual excellence. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but few people take the civil service exam or seek out a job in the federal government because they want to do a bad job. They are told to adhere to a giant binder of regulations, to avoid potential lawsuits at all costs, to not dismiss incompetent underlings, to not make waves, and to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. If you sign up when you’re young, you’ll find a lot of older employees telling you to wait your turn. The Economist notes that “the federal IT workforce has five times as many people over the age of 60 as under 30.”

Some offices of the federal government do great work. Some do terrible work. The National Weather Service appears to have done a great job during this recent hurricane, keeping their heads down and focused on their duties, and not what the forecaster-in-chief was saying.

Federal bureaucracies are full of human beings, and human beings are not uniform. There are postal workers who run into burning buildings or confront burglars. And then there are ones who steal mail to get gift cards and cash. It is really difficult to recruit and retain a good team. Because the people in charge of administering any particular program are going to have varying levels of judgment, experience, competence, trustworthiness, diligence, and drive, the results are not all going to be uniformly good. And even when the results are good, they’re never quite as good as they sounded when the candidate was promising them on the campaign trail.

The experience with should have splashed some cold water of reality into progressives’ happy dreams: As it stands, this federal bureaucracy and its most familiar contractors can’t get you where you want to go. These aspiring presidents are planning a cross-country trip in a car with two flat tires, burned-out headlights, brakes worn down, and an engine that is sputtering.

And yet, all of these candidates make these vast new programs and benefits and rules and spending sound like the easiest task imaginable. Cleaning up the language a bit in Kevin Williamson’s First Law: “Everything is simple when you don’t know a thing about it.”

Lest you have any lingering doubts about the difficulties of keeping campaign trail promises and enacting policies: “I alone can fix it.” “Trade wars are good and easy to win.” “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.” “We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths.” “Department of Environmental Protection. We are going to get rid of it in almost every form.” And so on.