After the fall

After the fall

After the fall

Notes from the political sidelines.
April 12 2006 10:07 AM

After the Fall

The finger-pointing begins over who lost conservatism.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Higher-Ups: In what seems like a desperate ploy to have a religious cover during Holy Week, the current U.S. News reports on a fanciful book called The Jesus Dynasty, which contends that, along with John the Baptist, Jesus "saw himself as the founder not of a new religion but of a worldly royal dynasty." A Florida State oceanographer chose this month's issue of the Journal of Paleolimnology to unveil his theory that Jesus may not have walked on water but was actually skating on submerged ice during a cold snap in the Sea of Galilee.

But the most interesting 2,000-year-old news this past week was National Geographic's release of the Gospel of Judas, a Coptic text from an early Christian sect convinced that far from betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot acted with His consent. In the modern political vernacular, Judas' followers maintained that telling the Romans about Jesus was what the Bush administration might call an authorized release of declassified intelligence.


Last year, Congress and the White House spent Palm Sunday trying to save Terri Schiavo. This year, incumbents couldn't leave town fast enough. But as Republicans assess the wreckage from Tom DeLay's ignominious departure and President Bush's plunging approval ratings, they've become immersed in a profound debate about betrayal. The party is searching its soul to answer the question: Who lost conservatism?

Sunday's Washington Post offered at least three conflicting theories. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey blames his successor: "DeLay, as much as anybody, was responsible for putting the party on the wrong track. ... He always wanted his place in the sun." DeLay's former communications director John Feehery blames the staff: "Like all great men, Tom DeLay had great talents and one great weakness. In his case, it was some staff members run amok."

Ari Fleischer, who had the privilege of helping Republicans fail both on Capitol Hill and at the White House, blames incumbency: "There is a risk of majority fatigue where you run out of new ideas. ... The other risk is people's zest for reform yields to their desire to maintain power."

In a cover story on DeLay's departure, Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard blames the staff for betraying DeLay and DeLay for not recognizing that "he was a pawn in a criminal enterprise that netted its conspirators millions of dollars." Continetti closes with DeLay's ecumenical parting words to Time's Mike Allen: "We're all sinners."


Passive-Aggressive: Tired of being ground zero in the blame game, the White House is busily insisting that President Bush has played no role in his own downfall. Or, in the richly ambiguous phrase David Sanger and David Johnston used in Tuesday's New York Times to describe the White House spin: "Administration officials insist that Mr. Bush played a somewhat passive role."

A White House in trouble often reverts to the passive voice: "Mistakes were made." Apparently, a White House that can't fathom the trouble it's in reverts to the somewhat passive voice.

Republicans around the country have good reason to feel betrayed. A decade ago, they thought they were getting a Contract with America, not an endless series of contracts with K Street. In 2000, they didn't know that when Bush talked about integrity and responsibility, he meant to play a "somewhat passive role."

But conservatives won't get very far by spending the coming months debating whether Bush and DeLay were great men let down by zealous staffs, or weak men who let down the side by trying to win at any cost. America lost faith in Congress and the president long before the scandals, because of how they've run the country. The real betrayal is not just that a few sinners may have broken the law, but that an administration and a Congress strayed so far from the principles that brought them here in the first place.


In the National Geographic translation of the Gospel of Judas, Jesus uses a phrase that Dickens and Orwell would have loved, and that seems fitting for our times: "Minister of error." Members and staffers may come and go, but that's one post the current administration has never left unfilled. ... 10:01 A.M. (link)


Friday, April 7, 2006

Ignorance Is Strength: On a grim April day in the opening scene of 1984, Winston Smith looks out his window at a world only slightly more fictional than today's Washington and ponders the meaning of the word "doublethink." George Orwell was worried that totalitarianism would strip political language of all meaning, but he also knew the tendency of every power-hungry party to ignore outdated inconveniences like truth.

After two decades of practice, American conservatives now seem to have the art of cognitive dissonance down to a science. They believe in smaller government, even as they make it bigger. They believe that cutting taxes will balance the budget, even as those tax cuts (once again) send the deficit soaring. They think of conservatism as a font of new ideas, even as they keep making the same mistakes pursuing the same old, tired ones.


In the past year, the Bush administration has shown conservatives the hazards of seeing double: There's a good chance that you will fall flat on your face.

Republicans' 2006 game plan is a masterpiece of doublethink. They want to turn the fall elections into a national referendum on Democrats, but they plan to run the campaign on local issues. They know corruption is their Achilles heel, but they can't bring themselves to pass a real reform bill. They see immigration as the magic bullet that can rally their base in the fall, but now it turns out they were for it before they were against it. They denounce leaks, but from stem to stern, their entire ship seems to be leaking.

Dead or Alive: Whatever happens this fall, conservatives should be concerned that the other side is poised to pass them by in a sector the right has pretended to dominate for decades: ideas.

In the campaign hierarchy, ideas usually rank somewhere in the bottom tier of concerns, behind yard signs and getting enough signatures to be on the ballot. But more often than not, the party with a vibrant intellectual debate has an edge over the stale one. In 1992, Clinton offered a whole book full of new ideas—as did his main Democratic rival, Paul Tsongas, his running mate, Al Gore, and his general election rival, Ross Perot. The only thing Bush 41 read in that campaign was his watch. In 1994, Republicans put out a book of their own and waltzed to victory after Democrats spent the campaign attacking it.


The idea business has gone into a deep recession during the Bush years. The president cast aside the most interesting aspects of compassionate conservatism and had no interest in turning his White House into a hothouse of new thinking. In his second term, Republicans seem spent, intellectually and otherwise.

But the longer the country's problems go unresolved in this administration, the greater the chance that ideas will make a comeback in the next one. The latest hopeful sign appeared this week, as former Clinton Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and would-have-been Kerry Treasury Secretary Roger Altman announced the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, an attempt to bring some of the nation's brightest minds to bear on America's long-term economic problems.

The roster for the project's kickoff event looked like an assignment board at Slate.One panel featured Dismal Science regular Austan Goolsbee outlining his plan to eliminate the need to file tax returns and Jurisprudence contributor Robert Gordon explaining how to reward teachers for performance instead of credentials.

The Hamilton Project isn't a partisan exercise. The thinkers Rubin and Altman have assembled, such as Clinton phenoms Peter Orszag, Jonathan Gruber, Alan Krueger, and Michael Deich, are serious economists who study evidence, not polls. In an era when the country is tired of leaders whose numbers don't add up, that seriousness makes the Hamiltonians all the more formidable. As Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel observed, "Even those who don't welcome the ideology ought to welcome the attempt to move public debate away from empty slogans, trash talk, and Polyannaish denial of reality."


Except, of course, for the trash talkers. Some insist the answer to doublethink is to stop thinking at all. In a piece called "Wall Street Dems Unveil Plans to Undermine the Progressive Movement," angry young blogger David Sirota tries to make Rubin's interest in improving teacher quality and reducing income inequality sound like a covert plot to fill corporate coffers.

That's the only trouble when you try to build a party of Alexander Hamiltons: Some crank comes along and thinks he's Aaron Burr. ... 12:26 P.M. (link)


Monday, April 3, 2006

Thrill Seekers: Josh Bolten, President Bush's new chief of staff, loves his Harley-Davidson. John Podesta, President Clinton's last chief of staff, loved roller coasters. Anyone who wants to run a modern White House had better love the thrill, because it's not always possible to enjoy the ride.

At the end of Clinton's term, Podesta printed up mugs for us that said, "I Survived the Clinton Roller Coaster." Soon, if we can believe the early leaks from his tenure, Bolten will be handing out T-shirts that say, "I Survived the Bush White House Shake-Up." According to the Washington Post, Bolten wants to bring in new voices to strengthen the White House policy operation and may also cashier Treasury Secretary John Snow.

Like most White House changes, this one hardly lives up to the term "shake-up." It's more like a spring cleaning. The new guy comes in, tidies up as best he can, and spends the rest of his tenure trying to stop old habits from creeping back in.

One of the hardest, most important jobs of the chief of staff is more mundane than deciding the issues—it's deciding which advisers should be in the room when key decisions are made. When a White House stumbles (as this one did over the Dubai Ports World matter), it's often because those at the top make decisions without knowing all the facts—or worse, thinking they know more than they do.

The inner circle of the White House tends to follow basic evolutionary rules: Staffers with a keen understanding of the political world survive; those for whom politics remains a foreign language tend to fall behind. Unfortunately, when alpha hacks emerge as the dominant species, it only reinforces this administration's worst habit of letting the politics drive the policy.

Spring Forward: A new chief of staff has the chance to reset the clock. In the Clinton White House, each succeeding chief of staff reconfigured the first meeting of the day to try to get the best cross-section of advisers so that he would know everything that was going on. The task is harder than it sounds: Make the circle too small, and you might get blind-sided. Make the circle too big, and you won't be able to make decisions without the whole world finding out about it.

Even that seemingly small aspect of the job requires enormous tact, diplomacy, and dexterity. Nobody becomes chief of staff without the ability to run a tight ship, but keeping staffers out of meetings is harder than one might think. Over time, the first meeting of the day slowly grows in size, until it's too big for real discussion and debate. At that point, a chief of staff either has to take staffers off the list—or start over by scheduling a more exclusive meeting even earlier in the day. I can't say for sure whether Andy Card had that problem, but by the time he left, he was getting up at 4:20 every morning.

Bolten is likely to bring in a few new faces, especially to shore up bruised relations with Congress. Today's New York Times reports that at OMB, "Mr. Bolten showed a knack for pushing the White House's financial agenda without alienating Republicans on Capitol Hill." In other words, he let them cut taxes and didn't make them cut spending.

But it isn't easy to breathe new life into a waning administration. Beyond Bush's diminished popularity, Bolten must overcome the problem of supply and demand. When Clinton was elected in 1992, his administration received 50,000 résumés from around the country. When he was re-elected in 1996—by a much wider margin—only 5,000 résumés came in.

In the last years of a second term, people turn down jobs they would have killed to have a few years before. Senior Hill staffers don't want to give up secure positions of power to join an administration that will soon disband. With no designated successor, the Bush White House may have even more trouble attracting talent over the next 33 months.

The final, biggest hurdle that Bolten faces in changing the White House is the president himself. By this point in an administration, the White House staff is usually easier to manage because they've figured out how to do their jobs. Six years in, the president will be harder to manage for exactly the same reason. The bad news for Bolten—and for us—is that Bush will look to him to run the staff but won't be looking for any pointers on how to run the country. ... 11:01 A.M. (link)


Thursday, March 30, 2006

A Couple of Ringers: President Bush isn't the only one looking for relief these days. In the wake of the bestselling expose Game of Shadows about Barry Bonds's alleged steroid use, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig today  named former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to lead an inquiry into steroids and the game. Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is working as an MLB consultant and tried unsuccessfully to get Selig an advance copy of the book.

There's no question that baseball is good for politics. Presidents have been throwing out first pitches for a century. Politics had a lot to do with MLB's decision to bring baseball back to Washington, and while many locals grumbled, the political class led the cheers.

But this week's moves to bring in a righty and a southpaw raise a question that many MLB insiders have no doubt been pondering since the Washington Nationals ordeal began last year: Is politics good for baseball?

Mitchell is a director of the Red Sox; Fleischer a diehard Yankee fan – so Selig has his bases covered. As a respected statesman and former judge who loves the game, Mitchell is a capable choice. Running the Senate and bringing peace to Northern Ireland were just a warm-up for the job of studying superstars' past urine tests.

Fleischer didn't exactly do much to buff his last big client's image, but no one doubts his enthusiasm for baseball. He used to play catch with Bush on the White House lawn and clown around with big leaguers who came to visit. White House reporters who suffered through Fleischer's non-responsive press briefings must have laughed during his book tour when he told Sports Illustrated that Bonds is the one who's "not media-friendly."

Whiffs: But setting these two relievers aside, the real question is whether the political world has any credibility left to bring the baseball world. While the Bonds probe leads today's sports page, the front-page headlines across the country are about the sentencing of longtime Washington insider and skybox sleazeball Jack Abramoff. Yesterday, the Senate passed an ethics bill that prohibits elected officials from accepting free tickets to ball games. The Republican point man on ethics (and leading steroid critic), John McCain, voted against the bill as too weak. "The good news is there will be more indictments, and we will be revisiting this issue," he said.

Meanwhile, the Fan-in-Chief's popularity ratings are so low that he seems to have brought not only "The West Wing" but also "Commander in Chief" down with him. Jessica Simpson won't meet with him, Republican congressmen won't campaign with him, and if Bush wants to throw out the first pitch at RFK, the Washington Nationals catcher will probably go along only if he can wear his mask.

Perhaps Selig had no other choices. When baseball turned to Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis to clean up the game after the Black Sox scandal, judges stood head and shoulders above scruffy ballplayers. Today, judges are often as tainted by politics as politicians. Much as Sam Alito might have jumped at the chance to don his Little League uniform again, even a Supreme Court justice would no longer be seen as impartial on the issues in the Bonds case – drug testing, privacy, the league's contract with the players union.

In the end, unless federal prosecutors press charges against Bonds, the dilemma for Selig and Mitchell will be whether to toss the Giants star from the game for using substances that weren't prohibited, or put an asterisk in the record books to say his home-run marks don't count. If Selig wanted a magic asterisk, perhaps he should have beaten Bush to the punch, and brought in former OMB director Josh Bolten.

Selig finds himself in this mess because he waited too long to take action against steroids, but now the writing is on the clubhouse wall. Whether or not baseball gets its clean-up hitters, baseball will get its clean-up. On that score, politics isn't even in the same league. ... 4:59 P.M. (link)