The Bush Paradox
Robert B. Reich was U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, and co-founder of The American Prospect magazine, from whose October issue this is adapted.
The White House’s strategy to make John Roberts the next chief justice has been the very model of meticulous planning, by contrast to its utter cluelessness in dealing with Katrina. No White House in modern history has been as adept at politics and as ham-fisted at governing. Why?
With politics, the Bush administration has shown remarkable discipline—squelching leaks and keeping Cabinet members on message, reaching down into the bureaucracy to bend analyses in directions that supports what it wants to do, imposing its will on congressional leaders and even making a political imprint on state legislatures. No recent president has got re-elected with controlling majorities in both houses of Congress, or been as successful in repositioning the national debate around his ideological view of the world.
With governing, it’s been almost criminally incompetent—failing to act on clear predictions of a terrorist attack like 9/11 or a natural disaster like Katrina, botching intelligence over Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, failing to secure order after invading Iraq, allowing prisoners of war to be tortured, losing complete control over the federal budget, creating a bizarre Medicare drug benefit from which the elderly are now fleeing, barely responding to the wave of corporate lootings, and running the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the ground. Not since the hapless administration of Warren G. Harding has there been one as stunningly inept as this one.
The easy answer to the paradox is that Bush cares about winning elections and putting his ideological stamp on the nation, but doesn’t give a hoot about governing the place. But that’s no explanation because the two are so obviously connected. An administration can’t impose a lasting stamp without being managed well, and a president’s party can’t keep winning elections if the public thinks it’s composed of bumbling idiots.
The real answer is that the same discipline and organization that’s made the White House into a hugely effective political machine has hobbled its capacity to govern. Blocking data from lower-level political appointees and civil servants that’s inconsistent with what it wants to do or sheds doubt on its wisdom, for example, may be effective politics—in the short term. It keeps the media and the opposition party at bay.
But the same squelching of troublesome information prevents top policymakers from ever getting the data they need. Operatives in the CIA suspected Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and personnel at the Department of State knew the plan to invade Iraq was seriously flawed, but such judgments were suppressed by a White House that made perfectly clear what it wanted and didn’t want to hear. Career professionals at the CIA and the Department of State are now wary of sharing what they know with appointed officials, as are scientists and experts all over the federal government.
Similarly, a White House whose Cabinet officers all deliver the same, positive lines can be a formidable message machine. But this same discipline also discourages internal dissent, for the simple reason that in Washington nothing stays completely private. The predictable result is that Bush officials have become yes-men incapable of sounding alarms. The price of dissent is high. Soon after Larry Lindsey, then director of the National Economic Council, warned that the cost of the Iraqi war would be in the range of $200 billion — almost exactly what it’s cost so far—he was fired. After Paul O’Neill, secretary of the Treasury, worried out loud that federal budget deficits didn’t seem to matter any longer—a prescient concern—he was fired, too. Can it be any wonder why this president doesn’t seem to get it?
Political discipline is also honed when the White House staffs agencies with people loyal to the president, along with loyalists’ friends. Joe Allbaugh worked as W’s chief of staff when he was Texas governor and was his 2000 campaign manager, so it seemed perfectly natural to put Allbaugh’s college buddy, Michael Brown, in charge of FEMA, even though “Brownie” had no previous experience in disaster management. FEMA’s acting deputy director and its acting deputy chief of staff had no relevant experience, either; both had been advance men in the White House. Given this, no one should be surprised that FEMA so badly bungled Katrina. Brownie is gone now, but the administration is still crawling with cronies who know their politics but don’t have a clue what they’re supposed to manage.
Politics first, competence last: That’s the Bush administration all over. Karl Rove, Bush’s brain and deputy chief of staff, is in charge of the political juggernaut that’s substituted for effective governance. Presumably, he’s now at work on a plan to burnish the image of Republicans as managers of the public’s business so they don’t the hell beaten out of them in the mid-term elections a year from now. But the harder Rove works at spinning what this White House has accomplished, the more likely it is that Americans will see that what it’s accomplished is basically spin.