Washington is atwitter with '08 presidential talk. Of course, it's way too early for this sort of thing. But that's never stopped handicappers from poring over the polls and travel schedules of the wannabes like ancient priests staring at goat innards in the mistaken belief that they can glean the future from the hue of the viscera.
One particular qualification has emerged above all others: competence.
On the liberal side this is hardly new. Historically, Democrats have been the party of government, so their shtick is to claim they can steer the leviathan state around any rocky shoals to the coastline of nirvana. Former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis - a man who proved we don't need biotechnology to create the Worst Candidate Ever - summed up this attitude nicely when he declared in 1988 that the election was about "competence, not ideology."
Until recently, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner were positioning themselves as problem-solvers, not ideologues. But, for the moment, such maneuvering has been eclipsed by an acrid cloud of Bush hatred. When it dissipates, we can be sure the competence mantra will return.
Indeed, there is a hunger for competence out there. In foreign policy, the less-than-turnkey operation in Iraq and the wiliness of the Axis of Evil have created a longing for sober-eyed realism. Indeed, at no point in my lifetime has amoral Kissingerian realpolitik had greater appeal on both sides of the aisle.
Domestically, the yearning to be rescued by a clipboard-carrying cavalry of uber-bureaucrats hasn't been this pronounced since the early 1960s, when John F. Kennedy and his crowd claimed that most of the important public-policy questions had been settled and all that was left was for his whiz kids to fix the world. After Hurricane Katrina, a host of avowedly "post-partisan" commentators have focused on a widespread desire for, in the words of the Washington Post's David Ignatius, a "party of performance." Others have tried to revivify the Progressive spirit of government as a calling.