Ballot Box

Bush and Dissent

In a pre-inaugural interview with the New York Times, George W. Bush explained his attitude toward loyalty and dissent. “Loyalty is somebody who walks into my office and says, ‘Here is my opinion,’ or ‘I hear you are thinking this way. I don’t agree with you,’ ” Bush said. “… And it’s a two-way street, by the way. A loyal president … says, ‘I expect to hear from you. I don’t want to muzzle you. I want to know.’ And that opinions be open, and that I listen, and I decide. And once the decision is made, everybody binds together and implements.”

At that level of simplification, Bush’s approach makes perfect sense. It’s more or less how any presidential administration tries to function–or any organization, for that matter. Most executives recognize that internal disagreement can be a valuable tool because it lets them weigh alternative courses of action. Public conflict, on the other hand, is seldom beneficial. Once the press catches wind of disagreement, what Franklin D. Roosevelt called “creative tension” tends to come across as disarray, indecision, and personality conflict. This was the reputation the Clinton administration developed during its first two years. It’s something most decision-makers try to avoid.

In practice, though, dealing with dissent is a bit more complicated. The Bush administration is the least leaky to occupy the White House some time. Even so, word of significant internal differences has begun to trickle out. For instance, news stories have reported that Secretary of State Colin Powell supports a softer line on a variety of foreign policy issues than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. So far as I know, none of these men has been feeding his personal views to press. But because all expressed opinions on a variety of issues before joining the administration, because they testify regularly before congressional committees, and because people will talk, it’s not hard for reporters to put together a picture of how their viewpoints diverge. In the real world of Washington, you can’t draw a fast line between private disagreement and public dissidence. If you want the former, you’re going to have to live with some of the latter. 

Conversely, the more an administration reacts against public expressions of discord, the less vigorous its internal debates are likely to become. When Cabinet members are punished or humiliated for crossing the porous line that separates internal and external disagreement, they tend to become overcautious. Over time, an administration that clamps down too hard on leaks and disloyalty develops a reputation as an intellectually repressive place, the way the Nixon White House did. That means that the kind of people willing to speak their minds to a president either stay away or are kept away. Instead of useful debate, a president gets yes-men and functionaries. He hears only what gets filtered through a dictatorial chief of staff. 

Past examples suggest that an administration does well to strike a balance between liberty and license. How well is Bush striking it so far? A piece by Dana Milbank published a couple of weeks ago in the Washington Post argued that despite the Bush family mania for loyalty, George W. has been surprisingly tolerant of dissenters. John DiIulio, head of the new faith-based initiatives office, did not get whacked over the head for speaking out publicly against abolition of the estate tax. Nor was there any apparent consequence when Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson reiterated his opposition to a ban on federally funded fetal stem-cell research in a recent Senate hearing, despite the fact that Bush supports the ban. These episodes suggest that the president understands that his appointees need some latitude for independent thought.

Another example that underscores Bush’s apparent permissiveness is the way he dealt with Colin Powell when the two revealed a policy discrepancy on the subject of North Korea earlier this month. Powell got out ahead of the president when he said that there were “promising elements” left on the table in Bill Clinton’s unfinished arms control negotiations. Bush repudiated the position the following day when he met with South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung. Challenging Kim’s policy of détente, Bush said he had no interest in a quick resumption of negotiations with the North.

As one would expect, Powell quickly fell in line behind Bush’s stated position, which according to news reports reflects more of the viewpoint of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But Bush didn’t try to punish Powell or shame him for straying from the reservation. The president never expressed any unhappiness that the divergence in views became public. On the other hand, this may not say very much about Bush’s appreciation of nonconformists. Powell is a political superstar with a power base independent of the administration. For Bush to slap his wrist for speaking out of turn would be downright foolhardy.

Another widely reported episode supports the contrary thesis–that Bush is intolerant. Last week, when the president reversed his campaign pledge to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, he made it appear that he had no interest in hearing a genuine debate. He also managed to utterly humiliate his leading person on the other side of the topic, Christine Todd Whitman, whom he appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Whitman had touted Bush’s campaign promise as evidence of the president’s seriousness about global warming. In consultation with Cheney, his chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsay, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, and pro-industry senators–but not Whitman–Bush decided that increasing energy supplies was more important. According to a news report, Whitman found out about his decisions when a friend forwarded an e-mail message from industry lobbyists who were congratulating each other on their victory. Reportedly, Whitman went to Bush privately and asked him to reconsider, but to no avail. She subsequently issued a lame statement supporting his decision.

This hardly conforms to Bush’s model for effectively channeling disagreement. For a Cabinet officer, the only thing more mortifying than being overruled in your own area of expertise is being out of the loop on the decision. By handling the issue the way he did, Bush not only shamed his top environmental adviser, he made an involuntary rebel–and something of a martyr–of her. Whitman remains in her post, but as a factotum rather than a real policy-maker. No one supposes she has any real influence over major administration decisions. To others in the administration, the message of this episode is clear. Despite Bush’s rhetoric about the value of disagreement, docility is all he really desires from his Cabinet.

Perhaps Whitman’s harsh handling was an isolated example. Bush may have rebuked his EPA chief because he felt, not unreasonably, that she was trying to maneuver him into making the decision she wanted by acting as if it were a foregone conclusion. He may have simply goofed up and mishandled the situation. The jury is still out on the larger question of how much dissent the president really wants. But the Whitman incident points to a more worrisome conclusion. Bush may be someone who pays lip service to the value of a frank exchange of views–but in practice prefers obedience and conformity.