The Big Dig

The Big Dig

The Big Dig

Notes from the political sidelines.
Sept. 16 2005 12:15 PM

The Big Dig

Is the Bush Presidency worth rebuilding?


Friday, Sept. 16, 2005

We Can Rebuild Him: Several news analysts note that Bush's speech last night was not only about rebuilding the Gulf region, but about rebuilding his image and Presidency as well. Slate's own John Dickerson was the first to make this point last night; headline writers at the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times quickly followed suit.


I don't want to be the Dennis Hastert at the garden party who asks whether, in the wake of this latest disaster, it makes any sense to rebuild the Bush Presidency. There is no way to imagine America without a President. Moreover, The Has-Been has fond memories of younger days spent at the White House, and is eager to see its glory restored.

But conservative budget hawks are right to raise a related question: How much more can we afford to borrow from future generations to revive a Presidency that has already cost so much and achieved so little? Time and again, we have seen that this administration cannot be fixed by throwing money at the problem.

It might be cheaper to give the President and his aides modest retraining accounts. Unfortunately, we know that turning the White House into a laboratory for conservative ideas doesn't work, either.

But my greatest concern is that like any massive undertaking, the reconstruction of the Bush Presidency will be rife with scandal, fraud, and abuse. Despite Bush's promise last night that "we'll not just rebuild, we'll build higher and better," I fear that in the end, the same hacks, profiteers, and scam artists will charge us a fortune to rebuild the Bush Presidency on the same low ground.


For that reason, The Has-Been urges the President to put a Reconstruction Czar in charge of rebuilding the Bush Presidency. This individual would have complete authority to fire hacks on sight, root out partisan feather-bedding, and blow the whistle on White House aides for pointing fingers.

If necessary, the czar would even have the power to sanction the President himself, if Bush reverts to passing the buck, responding slowly to crises, or planning more vacations.

What prominent American can be trusted to rebuild the Bush Presidency on higher ground? Tom Kean can't do it – he's too busy as chair of the Permanent Select Committee to Investigate Bush Failures. Colin Powell is preoccupied with a rebuilding effort of his own.

So far, the only Republican name that comes to mind is John McCain. He despises corruption and knows how badly the office has been damaged by disaster. Best of all, McCain understands what the President may not: Rebuilding the Presidency is far too big a job to get done in the time Bush has left. ... 9:09 A.M. (link)


Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005

Post-Speech Scorecard: How did Bush do? Count the buzzword mentions:

Compassion: four times

Responsibility: once (with reluctance)

Trust: zero                                     ...  7:19 P.M.


Master of Disaster:By now, Michael Gerson has sent President Bush a moving, forceful address to deliver to the nation this evening. Give the Bush White House its due: FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security may let America down in a crisis, but Speechwriting always comes through with flying colors.

If you're scoring at home, here's Gerson's checklist of buzzwords: "trust," "compassion," and of course, "responsibility." We also can expect an extra helping of such Bush standbys as "never happen again" and "the American spirit." All these lovely sentiments remind me of this old Far Side cartoon. No matter what Bush says, the only word Americans will hear is "disaster."

What would it take for tonight's speech to earn a second chance for one of the most unpopular presidents in history? Let's review the buzzwords one at a time:

Trust: While it may be the most massive reconstruction effort in American history, the bricks-and-mortar side is actually the easy part. Given enough bloated appropriations and cost overruns, even the hapless Army Corps of Engineers can repair and rebuild the New Orleans levees.


The far more difficult breach to repair will be trust. In today's New York Times poll, the percentage of Americans who trust the federal government to do the right thing is dangerously low. African-Americans have more reason than ever not to trust this administration.

The reason Bush is on the brink is that he has built his entire presidency not on achieving results for the American people, but on convincing them to have faith in his leadership instead. Those days are long gone. The only way Bush can begin to regain Americans' confidence is to acknowledge that in this crisis, he and his government lost that trust and are determined to earn it back. The best thing Bush could do for himself would be to say plainly, "We let you down."

Every White House learns the old adage that the real danger from scandals is the cover-up, not the crime. There should be a corollary for fiascos: The lasting political damage comes not from the screw-up, but from ducking blame for it. When the FBI botched the Branch Davidian stand-off at Waco in 1993, Janet Reno could have been out on the street quicker than Michael Brown. But to her credit, Reno stood up and took responsibility, without excuses or spin. She became a national hero overnight.

Responsibility: According to the Post and the Times, the president will use tonight's speech to emphasize what he does best: spend money. To underscore its compassion, the White House has already developed a remarkable talking point: They're prepared to spend more in the next year on reconstruction here at home than they have on three years of war and reconstruction in Iraq.

The Post points out that Congress has already spent $62 billion on Katrina, more than the four largest disaster relief bills in history combined. The rest of the federal bureaucracy may be slow off the dime, but not this Republican Congress: They practice spending hundreds of billions all year long so that when disaster hits, they'll be ready.

Don't get me wrong—we should spend billions rebuilding the Gulf Region. But just how big does a disaster have to be before Congress and the White House roll up their sleeves and find a way the country to make sure can afford it? 

In the 1990s, when we still had a president (and Republicans) who believed in balanced budgets, emergency spending was the one legitimate loophole in the pay-as-you-go rules that required new offsets for new spending. Now there are no rules, and emergency spending has become a loss leader that Congress uses as an excuse to waive restraint everywhere else.

Bush is on track to break his own record for the largest budget deficit ever. Over the last four years, Washington has reverted to form as a classic binge eater, whose response to falling off his diet during the holidays is to decide that every day is special.    

In our political system, presidents are the only ones who can enforce fiscal discipline. Tonight, Bush's instinct will be to throw as much money as he can at the political mess he has just put himself in. If Bush wants to turn his problems around rather than simply massage them, he must shed his go-along fiscal cowardice and learn to make hard choices.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay insists that his colleagues have already cut government to the bone: "My answer to those that want to offset the spending is 'Sure, bring me the offsets.' "

The Has-Been understands DeLay's dilemma: You can bring lobbyists to the fund-raiser, but they'll never give you offsets. So, here's a list of $1.8 trillion in savings. If Congress and the president passed a fraction of it, they'd still have room for their next fiasco.

Compassion: Ironically, the last time the word "Reconstruction" was on every politician's lips was 140 years ago, in the days when Republicans really were on African-Americans' side in the South. Let's hope this time the good that comes of it is longer lasting.

Bush can stick a fork in compassionate conservatism, which has become a cop-out for addressing hard problems on the cheap. I'm all for faith-based programs, but the nation's response to Katrina cannot be to expect Americans to build their own ark.

Tonight's address is Bush's last chance to change the tone of his own administration.

He would be wise to settle for something more in line with our low expectations: competent conservatism.

The Bush team has a hard-earned reputation for exploiting partisan advantage. Yet from the outset, Bush has consistently squandered the greatest political asset of his office, which is that even Americans who voted against him will rally behind a president who rises above the fray in times of crisis.

After 9/11, the Bush White House rushed to restore politics as usual by making patriotism a partisan advantage in the midterm election. This time, Republicans were quick to point fingers at Democratic leaders in New Orleans and Louisiana. The administration has already used the crisis to advance the conservative wish list on Davis-Bacon and is reportedly considering turning the Gulf region into a laboratory for school vouchers and other right-wing hobby horses. According to the Times, the White House has put Karl Rove in charge of the reconstruction.

Americans are more desperate than ever for a leader who will put politics as usual aside for the good of the country. If Bush wants to get back on track tonight, he has to show us that the era of Michael Brown government is over. ...2:59 P.M. (link)


Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2005

Quiet Man: The good news is that John Roberts now believes in a constitutional right to privacy (chug once). The bad news is that he seems to think it applies primarily to questions about his personal views.

As Dahlia Lithwick predicted, Roberts spent much of Tuesday taking the Fifth. Reporters who've spent two months describing him as modest found themselves grasping for new adjectives: "enigmatic," "noncommittal," and best of all, "Delphic." If it doesn't work out for Roberts to become chief justice, he could always take over the Fed for Alan Greenspan.

Roberts' opening statement on Monday left us eager to find out whether his humility was genuine or false. Tuesday's hearings raised a similar question of whether his Delphic manner is real or a pose. When Lindsey Graham asked him how he'd like to be remembered in the history books, Roberts said, "I'd like them to start by saying, 'He was confirmed.' " The joke would be funnier if we were sure he didn't mean it.

Offspeed: Graham showed why Slate readers have a better strategy than the Judiciary Committee. As Dana Milbank points out in the Post, when Graham asked the closest thing to an off-the-wall question ("I think it stinks that somebody can burn the flag, and that's called speech. What do you think about that?"), Roberts needed a moment to figure out how to be noncommittal.

Howie Kurtz may be right that Roberts "must be a good ballroom dancer." But even the Oracle of Delphi stumbled when she couldn't see what was coming.

Roberts says the role of justices is to call balls and strikes, and fans don't go to baseball games to watch the umpires. He's right—we go to yell at them. In fact, that's also the reason conservatives throng to watch the Supreme Court.

Today's off-the-wall question is a follow-up from David Griffith: "Do you believe major league baseball umpires should have some flexibility in calling balls and strikes, or do you support the league's crackdown to bring uniformity to the strike zone?" In other words: If justices are the umpires, who are the owners?

Update: The White House decided to name Roberts as Chief Justice in part because of his supposed talent for building consensus on the Court. Yet just one day after Roberts promised that to remember that "it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch," the Chicago Cubs announced that before tonight's Cubs-Reds game at Wrigley, Justice John Paul Stevens will throw out the first pitch. The  Chicago Tribune  says Stevens is the first Supreme Court Justice to do that since William Howard Taft.

Perhaps the 85-year-old Stevens, a lifelong Cub fan, was inspired to dispense with recent precedent by the return Monday of 41-year-old Barry Bonds. Perhaps Jack Shafer's recent piece on Rehnquist's drug habit  led the Court to revisit its testing policy and make it easier to get steroids. But don't be surprised if Stevens is throwing a brushback pitch to remind Roberts that if you want to be an ump, go to umpire school. When you show up at the highest bench in the land, you'd better come prepared to play. ... 12:38 P.M.

Field of Dreams: At the close of his humble soliloquy on Monday, Roberts invoked soaring memories of his Indiana youth:

For me those images are of the endless fields of Indiana, stretching to the horizon, punctuated only by an isolated silo or a barn. And as I grew older, those endless fields came to represent for me the limitless possibilities of our great land.

Since Monday, The Has-Been has been wandering the prairies in search of those images. Here's one of his boyhood home that shows limitless possibilities, but no barn. Here's one of his club, with endless fields but no silo. Here's his school, La Lumiere, where he found punctuation, but no horizon.

At long last, however, H-B has found one possible source of these nostalgic memories. We've known for weeks that Roberts still reads to his kids. Now we may have discovered what he reads them.

The October 2000 edition of Lynx, an online poetry journal, includes a poem by Melissa Dixon called "Prairie Ramble":

under wide skies
the fenced woodlot
endless fields

Clichéd coincidence, right? But scroll down further, to Sheila Murphy's "An Excuse for Milk":

Once removed from alter ego, one became polite. That is to say heroic from the look of arch replies to long, drawn questions mounted on a field. … Why was the famous man so friendly?

Still think it's a coincidence? Look at Murphy's "Narration":

All language moves like a gazelle. As trembling hastens our devised consent, the raptures of a white sky drape those fears to which we frequently succumb. At the school called "La Lumiere," the boy wore dark blue. She watched the freshness leave him.

What does it mean? It's like John Roberts—I have no idea! It's almost Delphic.... 8:28 A.M. (link)


Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2005

Humble Pie: Because Washington is a city of such massive egos, the trait I admire most about John Roberts is his modesty. I just wish he'd stop bragging about it.

No biographical profile of Roberts is complete without a few references to his famous modesty. According to Google, the word "modesty" has already appeared alongside "John Roberts" more than 18,000 times. By contrast, the search engine records a grand total of 424 mentions – lifetime – for "modesty" and "Karen Hughes."

Maybe Bush should have put Roberts in charge of winning America some friends in the world. His message is coming through loud and clear: "Trust me – I'm modest."

Roberts's humility is a welcome change from the haughty tone that spoils the editorials he wrote in high school and memos he sent in the Reagan era. It's too bad he has to wear it on his sleeve. When a country lawyer starts saying aw-shucks, it's usually time to reach for your wallet.

Overachievers usually blow job interviews by boasting, "Working too hard is my greatest weakness." Roberts runs the risk of inventing an answer that is almost as annoying: "Modesty is my greatest strength."

But humility isn't just part of the Roberts charm offensive. It's the only glimpse of a judicial philosophy he's going to give us. He wants to reassure both sides that he'll to do as little as possible for the next 30-40 years. Conservatives breathe a sigh of relief whenever he promises to restrain himself. Liberals consider the alternative and count their (modest) blessings that he isn't full of himself like Scalia.

If humility is all there is to the Roberts judicial philosophy, shouldn't we find out whether it's for real? Senators ought to give the nice man a chance to prove his modesty is genuine, not false. So here's today's off-the-wall question: "Judge Roberts, on a scale of 1-10, how humble are you?" 

We'll know we're in trouble if he gives the  Karen Hughes  answer: "L'humilité, c'est moi!" ... 9:14 A.M. (link)


Monday, Sept. 12, 2005

Bottoms Up:If the Federalist Society and the ACLU had joined forces to design a drinking game for this week's John Roberts confirmation hearings, players would be chugging once for each Democratic mention of privacy, twice for each Republican reference to judicial restraint, and three times for each committee staffer caught yawning on C-SPAN. Feel free to play along at home, but make sure the beverage you chug is high in caffeine.

Republicans' only question for Roberts is whether he'll live to be 100. Democrats are so sure they can't stop this nominee they're just going to ask his advice on how to stop the next one.

Al Gore and John Kerry warned us that the Supreme Court would be the most important battle of our lifetimes. Now, even Hollywood seems to be preparing for life under Chief Justice Roberts.

U.S. v. Kabuki: Legal correspondents for the Post and the Times worked all weekend to provide tabbed and collated briefing books of the questions Roberts should expect. They even explain how he rehearses all the answers:

He boiled down his arguments to a few main points, then committed them to index cards and memorized them, then shuffled the cards to practice delivering them in different orders with different segues. ... He will seem to be mulling his responses, but he will have anticipated just about every question and will have prepared every answer in advance. Nothing will sway him from his script. 

As Dick Durbin told the Times, "Has anything come up before the hearings that is a showstopper for Roberts? The answer is no—no showstoppers."

Ah, but the show must go on. Or as Roberts might put it, "C'est la guerre!"

And Now for Something Completely Different: Luckily, Has-Been readers aren't quitters. For weeks, they have been plotting a stealth campaign to throw Judge Roberts for a loop. The strategy: Surprise Roberts with offbeat questions that aren't in his notecards. That way, America can get a spontaneous and unrehearsed view of how his mind works before deciding whether to put him in charge for the next half century.

Of course, H-B readers are a diverse lot and don't conform to a narrow, pinched view of what's "offbeat." Some are deeply philosophical: Shane Ham asks, "Where does law come from?"; utz9000 wants to know, "What are the limits of reason in doing justice?"

Others would like to find out if Roberts is even more boring than he is letting on. Martin Benjamin asks, "What are your thoughts on the theory of gravity?" Peter Bullock wonders, "How did growing up in Indiana influence your view of foreign trade?"

Some hope to trip Roberts with practical questions. A law student named ­Cram asks about the standards for passing the bar. Others, like Daniel Lebovic, want to sneak up on Roberts by pretending they're applying for clerkships: "Which do you believe is more difficult for an attorney to perform, trial or appellate advocacy? Which has been more difficult for you to perform? Why?"

Many readers, like Judith Sapp, are ready to take this out back and go nerd to nerd with Judge Roberts: "In the context of the new Hague Convention on Choice of Court agreements, please explain why a judgment obtained by substantive fraud should be enforceable by the State addressed."

A few are more conspiratorial, like m dunn, who urged that these questions be conveyed privately to Judiciary Committee staffers in order to prevent Roberts from reading them in Slate.

Showtime for Patty: Most readers, however, simply want to find out how (and whether) John Roberts ticks. He can learn the lines, but does he know how to dance?

So, thanks to legions of readers looking for a chief justice who can roll with the punches, here are the 13 Most Surprising Off-the-Wall Questions for John Roberts:

13. If you were stuck on an island at sea and had to choose one reality TV star to be your only companion, who would it be and why? And which one condiment would you take with you? (Elysia Aufmuth)

12. Follow-up question: You are trapped alone on a deserted island. What five amendments do you take with you? (Gerald Glover)

11. Who is your least-favorite philosopher, and why? (Mike Doyle)

10. Why does a chicken coop have two doors? (Laramie Taylor)

9. Who do you like better, Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers? (Joe Murphy)

8. Have you read On the Origin of Species? Explain the bit about the sexual relations of barnacles. (Lee Golden)

7. If a person could travel back in time to the 1940s and prevent a political enemy's parents from meeting (and thus prevent the enemy from existing), who would have claim to bring suit against the time traveler, and which decade would have jurisdiction? (Michael Caulfield)

6. What's your strategy for solving Sunday's Su Do Ku in the Washington Post? (Sam Shipley)

5. Why shouldn't the ground be able to cause a fumble in football? (David Griffith)

4. What changes would you recommend to the motion picture rating system? (John Depko)

3. If you and five other friends were going to dress up as the Village People for Halloween, which Village Person would you want to be? (Craig Roberts)

2. If you had to cast a vote to end either pornography or abortion, but not both, which would you choose? (Gary Silverman)

1. Which Rice Krispies mascot would make the best Chief Justice: Snap, Crackle, or Pop? (Gerald Glover) ... 12:37 P.M.  (link)


Hack & Sack: Across America, communities have bravely fought through federal red tape to help find new homes for the victims of Katrina. After its miserable performance under political appointees like FEMA Director Michael Brown, the Bush administration faces another dilemma: Where to relocate all the hacks?

Belatedly, the president took the first step Friday by relieving Brown of his duties and returning him to Washington. According to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown will remain as head of FEMA to "manage other disasters" – for example, his career.

In 10 days, Brown went from being another faceless federal bureaucrat to needing the federal witness protection program. More Americans have called for his resignation than ever heard of his able predecessor, James Lee Witt. If Bush had stood by his man at FEMA any longer, he would have had to change his nickname from "Brownie" to "The Unsinkable Michael Brown."

But as the Washington Post explains today, Brown isn't the only hack at his agency; FEMA is now home to an entire troop of Brownies. Brown's chief of staff was an advance man for the 2000 campaign. The deputy chief of staff was an advance man for the White House. His predecessor at FEMA had been a Bush campaign consultant in 2000. It's as if they all responded to the same classified, "Must Lack Relevant Experience."

Fire When Ready: Brown wasn't actually fired – that would require the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to admit error. "Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could," Chertoff said. "I want to make sure FEMA continues to be run the way it needs to be." In other words, we have only just begun to fail.

Brown's tragicomic survival parallels the long-running tragic folly of the Department of Homeland Security, Washington's response to the last great national disaster. Bush initially opposed the idea for the wrong reason – in order to protect bureaucratic fiefdoms like the FBI – then changed his mind so he could exploit it for the wrong purpose: pounding Democrats in the 2002 midterm elections.

Cynicism is its own reward. Bush's support for the Department of Homeland Security enabled Republicans to win back the Senate in 2002. If Bush can't find a way out of his Katrina tailspin, the performance of DHS and its FEMA stepchild could cost Republicans the House in 2006.

Ironically, Bush made homeland security a campaign issue in 2002 by turning Democrats against their own bill because he insisted on civil service reforms to make it easier for the agency to fire incompetent workers. Bush forgot to mention his plan to hire incompetent bosses.

Brown & Root: At first glance, Michael Brown would seem to be an even more preventable disaster than the breaching of the New Orleans levees. But protecting the nation from the next Michael Brown is not as easy as it looks. In fact, America has been wrestling with this conundrum since its inception.

The nub of the problem is this: In a democracy, a responsive government must do what the public and their leaders want, not just what the government wants. The last two centuries have been one long experiment in what mix of permanent civil servants and temporary political appointees can best achieve that ideal.

In recent years, as the Post recounted earlier this week, that experimentation has centered on reforming job protections for civil servants – rules which themselves are century-old reforms to protect the government from political hacks. During the homeland security debate, Mickey Kaus recommended a plan devised by Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters to let federal managers fire up to – but no more than – half their workers. Peters thought his 50-50 plan would cap the damage that could be done by incompetent civil servants and incompetent political appointees alike.

Yet as the current bureaucratic crisis shows, the battle between hacks and bureaucrats is not a fair fight. Brown is painful proof that a powerful, incompetent hack can do far more damage than some lowly career bumbler.

For that same reason, finding competent hacks is critical to any president's success. Michael Brown isn't just an incompetent, inexperienced boob. He's an incompetent, inexperienced boob who doesn't even know the President well enough to get him on the phone before a crisis happens.

If the Post thinks civil service reform is an endless struggle, Hack Reform is tougher still. The world is full of qualified civil servants, but a good hack is hard to find.

In normal times, The Has-Been might recommend a bipartisan National Commission on Hack Reform, armed with subpoena power and chaired by prominent retreads from Republican and Democratic administrations. The current bureaucratic crisis, however, demands that America cut the red tape and adopt an immediate, three-part Hack Reform plan:

1. Cut the number of political appointees in half. One way to solve the shortage of good hacks is to reduce demand. Today, the federal workforce includes about 3,000 political appointees. Cutting that number in half would save nearly $2 billion over 10 years – not including the potential budget windfall from halving the pool of senior officials who can leave through the revolving door to become lobbyists. More important, it reduces the risk of future Michael Browns by 50 percent. We might still end up with Joe Allbaugh, but we'll keep out Allbaugh's college roommate.

I championed this theory in the Clinton administration, as the chief advocate behind his campaign proposal to cut the White House staff by 25 percent. Some of my colleagues never forgave me for that idea, which they viewed as a 33 percent increase in their workload. I still think they were wrong. We had enough trouble finding good people to fill the slots we had, and all it takes is one incompetent White House staffer to jeopardize the presidency and the Republic.

2. Rate every federally appointed position based on the nation's ability to survive the hack who might end up in it. Much as we might like every political appointee to be competent, we shouldn't delude ourselves: Some presidents will insist on finding a place for bozos in their administration.

Instead of ignoring that sad political reality, we should fortify ourselves to withstand it. My Hack Survival System would rate every federal position according to the amount of damage a political appointee can do in it. At the same time, the White House personnel office would assign each jobseeker a risk rating based on their incompetence and inexperience.

Some jobs, like FEMA director or secretary of homeland security, are so important they cannot withstand anything greater than a Category 1 hack. Other less critical agencies, like the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, deserve good people, but could probably survive even a Category 5 hack. These ratings will help prevent political hangers-on from getting in over their heads.

3.Designate one backwater agency as the official dumping ground for hacks. Until we have a president who will get rid of useless federal positions, let's at least use them to house hacks who might do real harm somewhere else. If we don't provide presidents a safe place to dump loyal, mediocre people, dumping will still go on – in the dark of night, at agencies where hacks could do real danger.

Years ago, a campaign colleague told me that if we won, he didn't want a White House job. "I just want a nice, easy sinecure somewhere I don't have to work very hard – maybe in the Department of Transportation," he said. This particular fellow would have been totally harmless in that job, but instead ended up in more prominent posts where his screw-ups did some damage.

These Hack Reforms won't be easy, but we shouldn't despair. Before James Lee Witt came along, you could never have dreamed that one day the Post would find a "brain drain" at FEMA. After Michael Brown, draining the hacks ought to be a no-brainer. ... 10:59 P.M. (link)


Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005

We Have a Loser: Earlier this week, neo-con Bill Kristol told the Washington Post that almost every Republican he had spoken to was disappointed in Bush's performance. By evoking broad disdain for the administration's response from Republicans and Democrats alike, Bush has finally kept his promise to be a uniter, not a divider.

Usually, the blame game is a loser for both parties. However, when Republicans and Democrats can make common cause against a common enemy, like the federal government or hapless FEMA Director Michael Brown, there is more than enough blame game to go around.

Among the many illusions that washed away over the past week is one that was particularly precious to Bush: the long-lost and perhaps now never-to-be-seen-again political philosophy of compassionate conservatism.

For close political observers, this is hardly news. As a movement, compassionate conservatism always seemed like a leap of faith by an awfully small group of true believers, such as Bush's longtime speechwriter Michael Gerson and his first choice to head the faith-based initiative, Prof. John DiIulio.

DiIulio quit in late 2002, telling Esquire that the Bush White House cared only about politics, not 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," he said. Gerson still believes, but now he's stuck working on domestic policy for a White House that tries not to have one.

As an agenda, compassionate conservatism died by Bush's own hand in May 2001, when the president called for a new war on poverty the same week he threatened the Senate he would veto anything less than his full tax cut. If LBJ's war on poverty came to an unsatisfactory, Vietnam-like conclusion, Bush's war on poverty was a Bay of Pigs fiasco: Poverty won, the battle was lost before most knew it had started, and many Republicans swore to themselves they'd never get involved in an endeavor like that again.

No Child Left Behind – the aspect of compassionate conservatism about which Bush seemed to care most sincerely – has run smack into the same force that has bedeviled him on Katrina: his administration's own bureaucratic incompetence. The rest of Bush's innovative (if woefully underfunded) campaign agenda had all the hallmarks of a governor and gave way to a Republican Congress that quickly ditched compassionate conservatism in favor of what Jacob Weisberg calls interest-group conservatism. Moral leadership that was supposed to come from Gerson and DiIulio came instead from the likes of Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed, who didn't even feel compassion for clients paying them millions of dollars.

Brain-Dead Politics: Still, the Bush White House defiantly kept compassionate conservatism on life support, even though its best days were behind it. Bush's can't-do list grew longer—no faith-based bill; no welfare reform bill; no tax cuts for charity—but the speeches kept coming.

Why keep the faith? Because for Bush and his political team, compassionate conservatism was never primarily about a policy agenda. First and foremost, it was a political project. Just as Peggy Noonan had coined "a kinder, gentler nation" to inoculate Bush's father against the dark side of Reaganism, Karl Rove and company used Gerson's doctrine of compassionate conservatism to imply that George W. Bush wouldn't be another Gingrich Republican.

As a short-term political project, it worked famously. Bush's 2000 convention speech was a triumph. During that campaign, Bush gave the appearance of softening conservatism's hard edges by criticizing House Republicans for trying to cut the Earned Income Tax Credit. Never mind that at the same time, he was making any compassion agenda impossible by giving trillions to those who didn't need it.

As a governing philosophy, however, it was a disaster—too much faith, not enough works. Bill Clinton had it pegged back in 1999, when he said:

This compassionate conservatism has a great ring to it, you know. It sounds sooo good. And near as I can tell, here's what it means: It means, "I like you. I do. And I would like to be for the patients' bill of rights, and I'd like to be for closing the gun show loophole, and I'd like not to squander the surplus and, you know, save Social Security and Medicare for the next generation. I'd like to raise the minimum wage. I'd like to do these things. But I just can't. And I feel terrible about it."

We're too close to the Katrina disaster to understand its lasting impact on the American psyche. America's initial response to Sept. 11 held out hope of more unity and less division, but soon, politics as usual returned with a vengeance. The undelivered promise of a kinder, gentler conservatism has endured almost 20 years despite a mountain of meaner, harsher evidence to the contrary. Moreover, despite high hopes that a stronger role for government will be back by popular demand, Democrats still have to earn that support with a compelling vision of what government can and cannot do and how America can do better.

Nonetheless, I remember how much the first President Bush suffered from the 1992 riots in South Central LA, as it dawned on people that his administration had no answers to the nation's festering problems. For a man whose vision was "a kinder, gentler nation," all the moral high ground was suddenly underwater.

With so much to grieve about these days, no one will mourn the passing of another hollow slogan. We can only hope that Republicans jockeying for their party's nomination next time around will take the demise of compassionate conservatism to heart and see it as a failure not just of competence, but of ideology. ... 10:31 P.M. (link)


Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005

Not So Fast: Just because he's now the nominee for chief justice of the Supreme Court doesn't mean John Roberts gets to see Slate readers' off-the-wall questions before his hearing next week. In fact, Roberts' new role as head administrator begs more unexpected questions, such as, "Do you have plans to redecorate the place?" and "Will you be wearing Justice Rehnquist's robe from Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe, or Patty's from Charles Schultz's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown?"

The Has-Been is still reeling from revelations about Roberts' youth in this fascinating psychological profile from Sunday's Washington Post. The article recounts one especially telling episode. Young Roberts was considering a graduate degree in history, his favorite subject, when Jack Roberts, his strong-willed father, reportedly told him, "Real men study law."

Isn't that one of the unlikeliest four-word sentences in the English language? Check for yourself: A Google search turns up more than 3 million results for the phrase "real men"; but in the entire searchable history of humankind, Jack Roberts is the only person ever to utter the phrase, "Real men study law."

According to the Post, Jack Roberts was a lifelong Republican; a company man in an industry under court order to hire more women and minorities; and assistant manager at a plant that faced a class-action suit for making women take pregnancy tests then forcing them to take unpaid leave. What possible depths of paternal desperation could have driven Roberts to be the first steel executive in a thousand generations to make such a strange and historically important pronouncement?

To be sure, the '70s were a tough time for parents. All in the Family was the No. 1 show on television, and fathers everywhere thought America was turning into a nation of long-haired ne'er-do-wells like Meathead.

Perhaps Jack Roberts was so sick of hearing his son carry on in French that he put his foot down to keep him from squandering the rest of his life in grad school studying Roman history in the original Latin. Perhaps the father had seen the 1973 film The Paper Chase and thought that in such a tumultuous decade, law school was the one place his son could find a sensible career woman like Lindsay Wagner.

Or perhaps when Jack said, "Real men study law," he was just repeating a joke he'd heard at the country club, and John tragically took his father's words at face value.

I Want To Be a Real Boy: Of course, it's also possible that the story is apocryphal, or worse, may have happened with the roles reversed. One can imagine the future Supreme Court justice trying to wheedle another three years in Cambridge out of his fed-up father by telling him that Harvard Law was teeming with real men.

Either way, we should not underestimate the impact this father-son moment might have on Roberts' tenure. Dahlia Lithwick wonders why Roberts seems to hate the courts so much. Could it be that so far the law hasn't lived up to the father's promise? Does Roberts really believe in judicial restraint, or is he just afraid of what might happen to stare decisis if he unleashed the judicial he-man within?

Dr. Has-Been's expert opinion: John Roberts may be from the Midwest, but that's no guarantee his background is normal.

My father, who went to law school at Stanford with Rehnquist and O'Connor, could never have said, "Real men study law," without bursting into laughter. So, instead, my mother warned me, "Law school will mess up your mind." True enough. But that's the kind of sacrifice real men must be willing to make if they want to become chief justice of the Supreme Court by 50. ... 11:54 P.M. (link)


Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005

You Go to War with the FEMA You Have, Not the FEMA You Might Wish to Have: At last, a tiny bit of good news.If only the feds could get the power back on so people could appreciate it....

Witt and Wisdom: Bush may be pleased with "Brownie,"  but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco knows the right man to call when disaster strikes. On Saturday, she hired James Lee Witt to help her state turn things around. Imagine what Witt could do if he still had FEMA behind him. ... 9:32 A.M.