The Republican presidential primary race has turned into a clown show dominated by its biggest clown, Donald Trump. Trump has, at least for the moment, turned the primary into a reality-TV-style performance art project, aired in endless cable news segments, in which he says stupid, awful, outrageous, verifiably false things—and then, maddeningly, is rewarded for it.
Media coverage has helped make Trump the top clown, but the public is lapping it up too. As FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver reports, Trump, despite low odds of winning the nomination, has received vastly more media attention and public interest—judged by Google searches—than any other candidate in the GOP field.
Trump may be awful, but his particular brand of awfulness is apparently in high demand amongst potential GOP ballot-casters: He's currently leading, by a growing margin, the latest national poll is leading the GOP field amongst registered Republican voters. At least for the moment, Trump is the candidate that Republicans want, running the campaign Republicans want to see run.
This is what the GOP primary looks like right now. It's a rather depressing state of affairs. But it's not what the Republican primary has to look like.
In an alternate universe primary, Trump's blowhard campaign would already have been roundly dismissed by both voters and the media. And the week's political discussion would have been driven not by the latest Trump outrages, but by Jeb Bush's big speech on government reform yesterday.
I've been critical of Bush so far, and I remain more than a little skeptical about his candidacy (it's hard to trust any candidate to full invested in the NSA's probably illegal phone records surveillance programs). But yesterday's speech, delivered in Tallahassee, Florida, was surprisingly strong. What made the speech work, and what makes it notable in the midst of Trump-mania, was that it focused on major substantive political and policy questions: How should government employees be managed? And how should government spending be kept under control?
The speech implicitly suggested that these are the two biggest challenges facing government reformers, and also that they are closely connected—indeed, that they are ultimately the same project.
"The next president has got to confront the spending culture of Washington," Bush declared in the speech.
And he proposed four ways to do so: A balanced budget amendment (which "must be a tool to limit government, not raise taxes"), line-item veto authority for the president (which would allow the executive to selectively "eliminate wasteful spending"), overhauling the procurement process for government contractors to make it more competitive and less expensive (currently Pentagon purchasing rules are so onerous that "only a handful of giant defense companies can compete for big contracts"), and, finally, ending the assumption of ever-increasing spending inherent in baseline budgeting (which Bush called "a rigged system, designed to increase spending no matter what.").
In the speech, Bush directly connected the federal government's autopilot spending with its autopilot hiring practices. "Too much in the federal government runs on…People are hired, promoted, and given pay increases often without regard to performance." And with two million people on the payroll, that gets expensive quickly. Government employment policies, in other words, aren't just about management. They're also about spending.
So Bush called for a federal hiring freeze, and a shrinking of the federal workforce through attrition. About 10 percent of the government workforce is set to retire in the next five years; for every three workers that leave, Bush would only replace one, with a handful of exceptions. The result, he said, would be a federal workforce that's 10 percent smaller.
Bush also called for a system of performance rewards that allow good employees to be paid more—and at the same time make it easier to fire the bad ones. "The time it takes to remove an unproductive employee should be measured in weeks rather than years."
Finally, Bush called for new limits on the revolving door—by expanding the official definition of lobbying and setting a strict six-year cooling off period before elected officials and White House staff can work as lobbyists. But he also acknowledged that spending and lobbying are connected too: "Restrain federal spending and bureaucratic meddling," he said, "and we'll disrupt the culture that thrives on big government."
Bush didn't mention Hillary Clinton in his address, but the speech's big idea stands in direct contrast to her recent remarks attacking sharing economy services and proposing stricter labor and employment regulations.
Hillary Clinton's message, essentially, is that government should be in charge of fixing the economy, which is another way of saying that government should be in charge of managing the economy.
Bush's message, on the other hand, was that government's priority should be fixing, and managing, itself.
Bush may not be the best messenger for these sorts of reforms; government spending rose significantly in Florida while he was governor (it dropped as a percentage of the state's economy, but mostly as a result of the state's mid-00s real estate boom). His brother's administration was responsible for a massive increase in government spending and debt. And Bush's proposals could go further, and be even more specific and detailed.
Even still, Bush's speech hit on essential questions about the role and size of government. These are questions that deserve to be aired and discussed far more than they are now. Right now, though, they're being drowned out by the din of the Donald Trump circus show.
Bush's speech, then, stands in contrast not only to Hillary Clinton's campaign, but to the ugly inanity of what is now the Trump-led GOP primary. What his speech shows us what the primary race could look like—if enough Republican voters were interested. What the polls tell us is that, at least for the moment, too few of them are.