THE SOUTH PHILLY MADISON
VERSUS THE MAYBERRY MACHIAVELLIS
John DiIulio seems to be backing off some of what he’s quoted as saying about the Bush Administration in the new Esquire. [I haven’t read the Esquire story.] The Bushies and their bloggic allies (including, of course, Glenn Reynolds) are using this to divert attention from the substance of DiIulio’s observations. [“Baseless and groundless,” says Lord High Denier Ari Fleischer.] No one has yet specified which of the quotes in the Esquire piece were wrong or taken out of context.
All of this reminds me of how the Reaganoids managed to make the flap about David Stockmann’s admitting that “supply-side economics” was a deliberate fraud on the country into a flap about whether Stockmann was going to be fired for saying it, and Bush’s fairly successful attempt to make the issue about his having repeatedly lied about his drunk driving conviction an issue about how it was a “dirty trick” by Al Gore for a Democrat with no campaign connections to alert reporters to the existence of a public record.
In any case, the Esquire website posts the full text of the letter from DiIulio to the reporter, and I quote some of the juicy bits below. It includes all the hot-button quotes from the New York Times article. John does his best to be optimistic, but his description of the Bush domestic policy process is still pretty devastating.
To: Ron Suskind [ESQUIRE Magazine]
From: John DiIulio
Subject: Your next essay on the Bush administration
Date: October 24, 2002
For/On the Record
In my view, President Bush is a highly admirable person of enormous personal decency. He is a godly man and a moral leader. He is much, much smarter than some people-including some of his own supporters and advisers-seem to suppose. He inspires personal trust, loyalty, and confidence in those around him. In many ways, he is all heart. Clinton talked “I feel your pain.” But as Bush showed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he truly does feel deeply for others and loves this country with a passion.
But the contrast with Clinton is two-sided. As Joe Klein has so strongly captured him, Clinton was “the natural,” a leader with a genuine interest in the policy process who encouraged information-rich decision-making. Clinton was the policy-wonk-in-chief. The Clinton administration drowned in policy intellectuals and teemed with knowledgeable people interested in making government work. Every domestic issue drew multiple policy analyses that certainly weighted politics, media messages, legislative strategy, et cetera, but also strongly weighted policy-relevant information, stimulated substantive policy debate, and put a premium on policy knowledge. That is simply not Bush’s style. It fits not at all with his personal cum presidential character. The Bush West Wing is very nearly at the other end of this Clinton policy-making continuum.
Besides the tax cut, which was cut-and-dried during the campaign, and the education bill, which was really a Ted Kennedy bill, the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded non-partisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism. There is still two years, maybe six, for them to do more and better on domestic policy, and, specifically, on the compassion agenda. And, needless to say, 9/11, and now the global war on terror and the new homeland and national security plans, must be weighed in the balance.
In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, non-stop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking-discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.
This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis-staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.
Even more revealing than what happened during the first 180 days is what did not, especially on the compassion agenda beyond the faith bill and focusing on children. Remember “No child left behind”? That was a Bush campaign slogan. I believe it was his heart, too. But translating good impulses into good policy proposals requires more than whatever somebody thinks up in the eleventh hour before a speech is to be delivered, or whatever symbolic politics plan-“communities of character” and such-gets generated by the communications, political strategy, and other political shops.
Karl [Rove] was at his political and policy best, I think, in steering the president’s stem-cell research decision, as was the president himself, who really took this issue on board with an unusual depth of reading, reflection, and staff deliberation. Personally, I would have favored a position closer to the Catholic Church’s on the issue, but this was one instance where the administration really took pains with both politics and policy, invited real substantive knowledge into the process, and so forth. It was almost as if it took the most highly charged political issue of its kind to force them to take policy-relevant knowledge seriously, to have genuine deliberation.
Contrast that, however, with the remarkably slap-dash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically-timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration problem in miniature: Ridge was the decent fellow at the top, but nobody spent the time to understand that an EOP entity without budgetary or statutory authority can’t “coordinate” over 100 separate federal units, no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right they feel the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be.
Whether because they will eventually be forced to defend the president’s now thin record on domestic policy and virtually empty record on compassionate conservatism, or for other reasons, I believe that the best may well be yet to come from the Bush administration. But, in my view, they will not get there without some significant reforms to the policy-lite inter-personal and organizational dynamics of the place.