Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bush White House - all politics, no policy

Why have the supposedly smart people in the Bush Administration been dogged by a level of total failure not previously seen in any modern American Administration? The explanation goes back to an observation made by John DiIulio and published by Ron Suskind.

This is actually an old observation from 2002, but it remains true. From Ron Suskind who wrote the book The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill (currently $3.98 at Barnes & Noble):
President George W. Bush called John DiIulio "one of the most influential social entrepreneurs in America" when he appointed the University of Pennsylvania professor, author, historian, and domestic-affairs expert to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He was the Bush administration’s big brain, controversial but deeply respected by Republicans and Democrats, academicians and policy players. The appointment was rightfully hailed: DiIulio provided gravity to national policy debates and launched the most innovative of President Bush’s campaign ideas—the faith-based initiative, which he managed until this past February, the last four months from Philadelphia.

"There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," says DiIulio. "What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

In a seven-page letter sent a few weeks after our first conversation, DiIulio, who still considers himself a passionate supporter of the president, offers a detailed account and critique of the time he spent in the Bush White House.

"I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions," he writes. "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 nonstop, twenty-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."

Like David Stockman, the whip-smart budget director to Ronald Reagan who twenty years ago revealed that Reagan’s budget numbers didn’t add up, DiIulio is this administration’s first credible, independent witness—a sovereign who supports his president but must, nonetheless, speak his mind.

Sources in the West Wing, echoing DiIulio’s comments, say that even cursory discussion of domestic policy became much less frequent after September 11, 2001, with the exception of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the department of "Strategery," or the "Strategery Group," depending on the source, has steadily grown. The term, coined in 2000 by Saturday Night Live’s Will Ferrell, started as a joke at the White House, too, but has actually become a term of art meaning the oversight of any activity—from substantive policy to ideological stance to public event—by the president’s political thinkers.

"It’s a revealing shorthand," says one White House staff member. "Yes, the president sometimes trips, rhetorically, but it doesn’t matter as long as we keep our eye on the ball politically."

This approach to policy-making is a fairly radical departure from the customary relationship between White House political directors and policy professionals. Each has always influenced the other, of course, but the political office has rarely been so central to guiding policy in virtually every area, deciding what is promoted and what is tabled.

"Besides the tax cut, which was cut-and-dried during the campaign," DiIulio writes, "and the education bill, which was really a Ted Kennedy bill, the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison with 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 nonpartisan, 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. But, as I think Andy Card himself told you in so many words, even allowing for those huge contextual realities, they could stand to find ways of inserting more serious policy fiber into the West Wing diet and engage much less in on-the-fly policy-making by speechmaking."
[Emphasis is mine - PPS Editor]
This pretty much explains the failures of the Bush Administration. They decide what they want to do, then determine how it will play out politically to the domestic audience. Having done that, any objections that the policy people bring up regarding how the project is to be done or what the likely results, especially downside results, are ignored.

This is a perfect explanation for why all the White House initiatives seem to be based entirely on political stereotypes and do not seem to have connection to real facts.

A quotation I found fascinating when studying Public Relations is "PERCEPTIONS are the REALITY we work with." Political operators and Public Relations operators differ only in who they are working for. So consider what it means to make Perceptions equal to Reality.

If getting power depends on the Republican base, and the Republican base holds the perception that the Earth was created in 4004 BCE, that evolution is a crock, and that the signs warn that Christ is about to return and all believers will be elevated into Heaven to sit at the right hand of God, then that becomes the Reality that the White House must operate in.

This is the glue that holds to politically active secular Republicans and the politically active Libertarians together with the Social Conservatives. Since the Social Conservatives outnumber both other major Republican sub-groups, the White House will act to please the perceptions of the Social Conservatives. Since the most politically active Social Conservative leaders consider the restrictions of policy-makers to be anathema, the White House must go along to retain power. That is the Reality the White House functions in.

This explains the priorities of the White House culture. It is aided and abetted by the fact that George W. Bush has no real interest in how government actually operates, so that policy operators have no way to get his interest. Bush clearly loves the political process, however, so the Political operators always can get his attention. This sets the priorities for the culture of the White House organization. Bush's intuitive decision process, which excludes rational consideration of policies and ideas feeds into this Politics-over-Policy and ignore-Reality culture. Since Bush considers changing his mind to be a weakness, there is no way for a policy operator who functions in unavoidable facts to reach his interests and convince him to change a decision already published in speeches.

Consider New Orleans. A Budget is a political document, and can be measured for effectiveness by its political repercussions. Funds allocated and actually spent on levees are reality. The results, however, do not become clear until the Hurricane hits. If politics trump policy, and the immediate results of cutting the budget allocations for levee building are obvious, then it becomes easy to ignore the dangers that may or may not occur later during hurricane season.

Since the biggest foreseeable security threats to the U.S. were identified to be
  • A major terrorist attack on a large American city,
  • A major hurricane hitting New Orleans, and
  • A major earthquake hitting California, particularly in San Francisco.
the policy wonks knew early on in the Bush administration what they needed to work on. But the priorities the Bush administration came in to office with were
  • An anti-missile defense system,
  • Tax Cuts and
  • Avoid doing anything that the Clinton White House did.
it should be obvious why no preparations were made for the major policy needs listed above. Then the culture and the attitude of George W. Bush ensured that no contrary ideas could be acted on.

So what happened after 9/11? Since a terrorist attack on a major American city had been only a possibility before 9/11 and it had no major national political constituency demanding it, the Bush administration essentially ignored that possibility at the highest levels. It didn't help a bit that the Clinton administration were pushing the new Bush people to give terrorism the highest priority at the highest level. Politically the Bush people catered to their supporters by down-playing everything Clinton. For a clear description of how they did this, read Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror by Richard A. Clarke. (A used copy is $1.99 plus $3.98 postage.)

The well-publicized success of the 19 plane hijackers as they hit the WTC (on TV and the Pentagon changed the White House priorities towards "A major terrorist attack on a large American city" from a mere Policy possibility to Political threat.

The reaction was, of course, political, not policy. First the problem was to control the public information that was gained by investigations into what the administration had done to prevent terrorist actions.

The strong effort to secrecy is that major protection the administration has had. We don't know what they did wrong because we don't know what they actually did. Then the 9/11 Commission was resisted until the resistance became too much of a political liability. Then the 9/11 Commission was established, but effectively neutered. anyone who thinks the final 9/11 report reflects what their investigators actually learned does not understand this White House. They didn't have to be honest, since the Republicans controlled Congress as well as the White House by the time the 9/11 Commission got started.

After the self-protection efforts were started, the next thing was to determine (politically) how to punish the terrorists. The political pressure on the White House required that we attack Afghanistan, so grudgingly, the Bush administration attacked Afghanistan.

But the NeoCons had been pushing for an attack on Iraq to "finish the job left undone during the 1991 Persian Gulf War." Again, this was a political position, with reasonable political justifications if the audience was the American voters. Politically this could be justified if Iraq was connected to the massive political upset caused by 9/11. How that was done is covered in Anatomy of Deceit by Marcy Wheeler and has been somewhat documented in the Firedoglake liveblog of the Libby trial. [If you are interested, click "Liveblog" in the labels below for my posts that link to the full Firedoglake liveblog of the Libby trial.]The important point to be made here is that, again, it was politically motivated. Policy and expert experience in Iraq were specifically excluded from consideration in determining why and how to attack Iraq.

The point of this essay is that this administration has a strict culture in which politics determines what they do, and policy is actively repressed. As long as the Social Conservatives are their largest political block and Bush is in office, this is not going to change.

Notice that 9/11 was not a reason to change the way they make decisions. The result is that when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, the reaction was the same. First avoid blame, second blame the Democrats in Louisiana, and third make promises. Action has not been any top priority in the White House. They literally don't know how to cause the government to act strongly and effectively.

So I am really glad that I don't live in San Francisco over the next two years or so. The Federal government is not ready for that expected earthquake, since the timing is still unknowable.