Same As the Old Boss

Will Josh Bolten change anything in Bushworld?

Bush and new chief of staff Josh Bolten

George Bush built a pond just outside the front door of his Crawford, Texas, home so that he wouldn’t have to walk far to fish. This is how he picked his new chief of staff, too. Today he announced that Andrew Card was being replaced by Josh Bolten, the current director of the Office of Management and Budget and Card’s former deputy. Despite weeks of anonymous leaks in the papers about a big shake-up in the White House, and some hints from Bush himself, the president has shaken up very little. He has once again made the pundits and nameless advisers look foolish. He has also defined “the bolten” as a new unit of Washington measurement. It is the smallest staff change possible short of doing nothing at all.

Bolten is more a veteran of the Bush management structure than the man he replaces. Since 1999, when he joined the campaign in Austin as policy director, it has been an article of faith that if Bush won, the former investment banker would one day be chief of staff. He is loyal, discreet, and diligent, just like Andy Card. Former Reagan Chief of Staff Howard Baker once said about White House staff changes: “If you cut the dog’s tail off, cut it all off at once.” The president has given it a trim. He doesn’t appear to want dramatic change as much as increased efficiency.

The move is so familiar and safe that Bush can’t have made it for public-relations reasons. But for anyone who wants to see the White House operate more effectively, Bolten was probably the best bet. It’s still a long shot that there will be a substantive change in Iraq policy or a burst of bipartisan proposals, and no one should expect weekly press conferences, meetings with the Sierra Club, or mea culpas. It’s too late in the Bush presidency, and Bolten is too much a product of Bushworld to do anything too radical. A key requirement of being OMB director is being able to spin the numbers through adventuresome accounting and clever use of euphemism.

But Bolten is a more reasonable pick than the fantasy solutions that were being floated by Bush allies. The notion that a veteran outsider like former Congressman Vin Weber or Sen. Fred Thompson could swoop in and change things was good for chatter at the Palm but missed the fact that Bush would never trust an outsider enough to give him real power. Only Laura Bush, and maybe the national security adviser, spends more time with the president than the chief of staff. Bush was never going to pick someone he didn’t want to hang with at Camp David.

Since Bush is comfortable with Bolten, his new chief of staff may be able to tell the president when he’s wrong and deliver bad news—occasionally. He’ll also have the clout to push back against Karl Rove and the vice president. Bolten has an advantage over them that Card didn’t. Bolten knows policy better than anyone in the White House. He has no particular political skills, but no newcomer was going to replace Rove in that arena anyway. In a debate over the ultimate shape of immigration reform, for example, Bolten will have standing on specifics of the issue that might shape the outcome. Known as a moderate in the Bush firmament, he should give some hope to those Republicans who worry that the White House listens too closely to the party’s conservative and evangelical wings.

Bolten seems to have no blood pressure, an appearance that can be deceiving. Aides joke that you could hand him a flaming toaster and he would wait patiently for the bread to be done. But Bolten’s even keel masks how tightly he is wound. His desk gives him away. The papers sit at right angles, and the binders and books are aligned evenly by their spines. He demands accountability even from his pile of paper clips. The policy wonks who have worked for him say he exacts rigor. Such precision will lend credibility to any change he suggests.

We have come to the point in the discussion about Josh Bolten where Washington journalism rules require that I tell you about the motorcycles. Yes, Bolten rides a motorcycle, and not just one of those touring bikes with the compartment for your fiber supplements. He owns a Harley-Davidson Fatboy and a few others, including one bike he leaves at the Bush ranch. He can also talk about music and food in a way that suggests a life beyond the policy wonk with the neat desk. But Bolten’s motorcycles seem less a sign of rebelliousness than his sole repository for it. Real change isn’t going to come to the White House because of a new chief of staff. It will happen only if, and only when, George Bush gives him a mandate to shake things up.