The government of the United States is not up to its job.
Review the past two decades and the record is shockingly bad. The two great crises we have faced, 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, produced leadership failures that resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands. The other great challenge of the era, the 2008 financial crisis, while somewhat better managed thanks to a momentary outbreak of public-spirited, bi-partisan cooperation between the out-going Bush Administration and the incoming Obama team, ended up producing a recovery that primarily benefited the top 10 percent of the population and left most Americans struggling or treading water.
We have failed to rise to the great challenge of our era, the climate crisis. We launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that must be categorized in retrospect as failures. We failed to lead responses to global challenges, from Syria to the rise of China, to revitalizing the international institutions we helped create. Inequality has grown. Institutional racism has deepened. Old infrastructure has not been replaced. As Nick Kristof observed in the New York Times this week, the U.S. has actually been the worst performing country in the world on a key measure of national health, the Social Progress Index. Of the 163 countries measured, we are one of only three whose people are worse off today than they were when the index was launched nearly a decade ago. And our decline was the worst among those three.
Our international standing is down. Corruption is rampant. Faith in institutions is falling. It is not just the CDC, once among our most trusted institutions, that is now viewed with skepticism. According to a Pew Study last year, 75 percent of Americans feel trust in the federal government is shrinking, with nearly two-thirds saying they felt that made it harder to solve the country’s problems. Perhaps not surprisingly, those with the least trust in our government institutions are those who have gotten the short end of the stick as a result of growing inequality in America and government responses—like tax cuts or Wall Street bailouts—that only help the rich. That includes people of color, those with lower incomes, those with less education and, in an ominous portent for our future, the young.
The message here is clear. While evidence compounds daily that Donald Trump is without question the most corrupt, most unfit, most dangerous, most incompetent president in U.S. history, he alone is not the problem. While Mitch McConnell’s scorched-earth partisanship and Bill Barr’s assault on the rule of law are dangerous, their partisanship, racism, and disregard for fundamental decency and their Constitutional obligations are repugnant, the failure of our government predates their arrival in their current positions of power.
If America comes to its senses and elects Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to be our next president and vice president, and we vote out McConnell and his colleagues who have so degraded the Senate, once regarded as the world’s foremost deliberative body, we should celebrate the arrival of competent leaders—but recognize that personnel changes alone will not be enough.
Even worthy policy initiatives—from starting to deal effectively with the COVID-19 crisis to ensuring that all Americans have health care, from reversing the wholesale damage Trump has done to our environment to restoring our international standing—will not be adequate. We must take steps to understand how our government could have failed to such an extraordinary degree, for so long, in so many instances.
This requires that we look those failures squarely in the eye. It is not something we are good at. We prefer to burnish our myths, talk up our exceptionalism and seek quick fixes. But there are precedents.
Just over a year after 9/11, the U.S. convened the 9/11 Commission to examine the reasons we were so vulnerable to that attack. It was not a neat process. The first chairman and vice chairman, Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell, had to quit because of conflicts of interest. But in the end, it performed a useful service, highlight some of the problems that existed in the FBI and intelligence community that contributed to our lack of adequate preparedness.
When the National Security Council was rocked by Iran-Contra, the Tower Commission was convened to seek answers and its results helped lead to the restructuring of that body and its effective function until, it must be acknowledged, its unprecedented failures under Donald Trump.
Bi-partisan commissions can be an effective tool to bring to light problems and the fixes our institutions require. Similarly, the failure to create independent reviews of major failures of governance have also resulted in failures to take adequate action—as was the case when we did not adequately investigate or hold accountable those responsible for the War in Iraq or the human rights abuses associated with torture and rendition during the Bush years.
Perversely, the partisanship of our era has contributed to our problems in several major ways. It has put party ahead of public interest time and again. It has resulted in parties in power granting themselves impunity. And it has made investigations into past administrations less likely because they are seen as partisan retribution rather than the reflection and self-correction that is an essential element of all good governance.
We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to acknowledge our government’s great recent failures, to study them and then to seek to correct them—both by making adjustments in how our government is structured or works, and by holding wrong-doers accountable to ensure abuses are not repeated in the future.
More than 200,000 Americans are dead due to the COVID-19 crisis. Six million have been infected. Tens of millions have been wracked by the economic aftershocks of the crisis. Those numbers are still climbing. Studies, however, indicate that as many as 90 percent of those deaths could have been avoided had the president acknowledged the crisis and took basic steps to ensure social distancing. We know he was presented a playbook to deal with the crisis by the Obama team. We know, from Woodward, that he was briefed on the severity of the nature of the crisis. And we know that at his behest, data was suppressed, programs delayed, priorities improperly set, science subordinated to politics, and quackery was promoted.
This will not be our last such crisis. It would compound the malpractice of this president to not carefully study what went wrong, institute necessary changes and, if crimes occurred, that those who committed them be held accountable. Whoever is elected in November must launch a major, independent commission to investigate this. The commission must be fully empowered to get the research it needs. It must be bi-partisan. And it must be above reproach, with all potential conflicts of interest carefully avoided.
Are there other such areas that deserve such scrutiny? The ability of foreign powers to manipulate our election results and do so with impunity? Corruption in our campaign finance system? Institutional racism in our police departments? Yes. All of these would benefit from the kind of independent scrutiny our Congress has for decades demonstrated it is incapable of providing.
Further, we need to strengthen the independent investigation and oversight capabilities in our government. It is clear our system of inspector generals is too easily manipulated by the president. IGs must be made truly independent. So too we must reconsider our flawed special counsel laws. We must return to a system that is beyond the ability of a malevolent president or attorney general to abuse as has happened under Trump. We must ensure ethics laws are enforced. While the process that produced the Ethics in Government Act in 1978 in the wake of Watergate was imperfect, it does give an example of how this can be done. In addition, as we have seen, new laws ensuring Congress has full, unquestioned and enforceable subpoena power must be passed.
Finally, a new administration must not avert its gaze from the abuses of the past four years as was done in the wake of Watergate, with the pardons after Iran-Contra, with Obama’s failure to investigate and prosecute human rights and related abuses during the Bush years. Denial does not produce healing. It exacerbates underlying problems. A commission into Trump’s serial abuses of power and corrupt acts and/or active re-examination of prosecutions dropped or manipulated by Barr is essential.
The next administration can only truly reverse the damage done during the past few years when it recognizes the systemic nature of the problems involved and begins to address them. It must be willing to admit that our government, once held up as an example to the world, has fallen on hard times and is not what it once was. New names atop a broken system will only produce new failures. It is time to fix what’s broken in the U.S. government, and that begins with ensuring that weaknesses that have been exploited or exacerbated for more than two decades are identified and eliminated.