Despite the inherent limits posed by incrementalism, including its entrenched bias toward the status quo, there are rare circumstances when this tendency gives way to a more fundamental departure from prior practice, which we will call overhaul. Still, the pragmatic, albeit limited, solutions offered by incrementalism are usually the most politically acceptable and generally preferred to overhaul. The inherent tendency resists critical inquiry and comprehensive revision.

There are historical exceptions, however. Some circumstances in which overhaul might supercede incrementalism are:

  1. A newly elected president claims a mandate.
  2. A crisis overwhelmingly demonstrates that business as usual has failed.

A newly elected president, usually not of the political party of the prior president, who has won decisively on a clearly defined platform has earned a mandate. However, he (no woman has been elected to that office) enjoys only a brief period to set a bold and comprehensive agenda, take the policy formulation initiative, and obtain legislative approval. This honeymoon period ends quickly, certainly by the time the next Congressional elections loom, about a year and a half into the new presidency. Some notable examples are:

Policy overhaul can fail, as well:

Crisis, which can propel events to the macro-agenda, can invite a policy formulation response, but this depends on how the President interprets events. Lyndon Johnson took office immediately after the assassination of the popular President John F. Kennedy, then faced civil insurrection in many northern cities. The Civil Rights Movement, under the leadership of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had mobilized national support. There was no real crisis, but Johnson interpreted the confluence of events as a crisis in need of a policy response: The Great Society.

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein led to the Gulf War under President George Bush. His son, George W. Bush has accused Saddam Hussein of producing terrible weaponry and has declared a crisis in need of military action, an event under way as this page is written.

A crisis can be deflected, however. President Bush gave the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles passing attention but, unlike President Johson, initiated no new policy initiative.

The only party who can play overhaul to his advantage appears to be a newly elected president. Reagan claimed the existence of an economic Dunkirk to achieve his historic policy thrust, the Reagan Revolution. All others must turn to a system whose forte is muddling through to attempt overhaul, and it runs the risk of failing mightily in public. Ask Jimmy Carter.

Building the majority necessary for authorization at each step in the cumbersome legislative process and doing it rapidly is a daunting task. A well organized minority can frustrate such efforts. Certainly, the atmosphere favoring overhaul defies the time and resources with wish the rational method might flourish. This is why incrementalism and inaction is normal.

Whatever policy is formulated and authorized requires much more before it has its anticipated and desired effect. The policy must go from the legislative process into the bureaucracy of government. It must be implemented, put into action. Irrationality and political compromise may be tolerable in the formulation stage, but will become evident as words on paper are turned into agency operations and budgets are mounted and spent. The results of the authorized policy will be known much later, generally years. What happens next?

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The Public Policy Web
©by Wayne Hayes, Ph.D., ®ProfWork
October 18, 2002