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Is competence too much to expect?

Let us now praise competence.

The praise is overdue. Competence is like the dull, but reliable husband a woman spurns for some sexy stranger with a flashy car. Then she finds out her new fellow has the manners of a pig, the depth of a wading pool and absolutely no interest in helping her study for her real estate license. Suddenly, dull and reliable don't seem nearly so bad.

We find ourselves learning that lesson on a national level for the second time in eight years.

The first was in 2005. We had been seduced by compassionate conservatism that shot from the hip and reacted from the gut. Then we discovered none of that could get water and food to a major American city in the wake of a devastating storm.

In 2008, we were smitten with hope and change, with urbane cool and thoughtful pragmatism. Now we learn none of that can build a website that works worth beans.

So yes, let us now praise competence.

Some will call it unfair to compare the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina with the Obama administration's botched rollout of health-care reform. They will note that as Team Bush dithered and "Heckuva Job, Brownie" tried to assemble the proper wardrobe for managing a crisis, Americans were dying. By contrast, for as much as people may have wailed, "Kill me now!" as it crashed, froze and mangled their information, Healthcare.gov didn't actually kill anyone.

But the observation misses the point. If these two debacles are unalike in impact, they are much alike in one critical regard: The people in charge saw this moment coming, had time to prepare and failed.

Consider: Katrina became a hurricane on Aug. 25 and entered the Gulf of Mexico the next day. It smacked the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. Yet, even with that much lead time, it wasn't until Sept. 2 that the first convoy of supplies reached the stricken city of New Orleans.

Similarly, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in March 2010 with a provision allowing uninsured Americans to begin purchasing insurance online beginning now, October 2013. Yet, as this month draws to a close, would-be users of the website still find themselves stymied, frustrated and unable.

Now, as then, failure raises an obvious question: If the government was unable to handle a challenge it knew was coming and for which it had ample time to prepare, what faith can we have in its ability to handle the unexpected? Say, a terrorist attack? A chemical spill? A nuclear accident?

Let us now praise competence. While we're at it, let us demand an explanation for incompetence -- and some accountability to go along with it.

It is unconscionable and unbelievable that the nation where Amazon.com was born, the nation that pioneered online retailing, cannot cobble together a website to sell health-care insurance. Though the public so far seems willing to cut the White House some slack -- Gallup polling shows that, despite the website failure and years of sustained GOP attack, health-care reform is actually inching up in popularity -- it would behoove Team Obama to fix this yesterday. As its lackadaisical response to Hurricane Katrina undermined the Bush administration's legacy, so might this debacle threaten President Obama's.

More important, it is not, well ... healthy when people must question their government's ability to perform basic functions. Like that wife who spurns her boring husband in the search for something sexier, maybe it's time we questioned the things that turn us on.

Hope and change are great, compassionate conservatism is all well and good. But you know what? There is also something to be said for just getting the job done.

Competence is the new sexy.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. his email is  lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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