Shaken, Not Stirred

It doesn’t matter if Bush replaces his White House staff.

Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
Karl Rove and George W. Bush

Here’s how the Bush administration deals with a problem that won’t go away: Washington insiders start talking about it; the pressure builds; the press won’t shut up about it; administration officials resist and insist they’ll do nothing; then Chief of Staff Andy Card emerges from the Situation Room with a plan to do what White House officials said they wouldn’t do and an explanation of how they had been planning on it all along. That’s how the Department of Homeland Security was created.

Now, unfortunately for Card, the problem that won’t go away is him. The issue of the White House staff has become a Washington obsession. Everyone has a theory: Bush’s aides are too tired. They’re out of touch. They’re beset with legal problems. They’ve gotten clumsy.

White House officials dismiss all the recent chatter but won’t say whether the president is contemplating any staff reconfiguration. There seem to be a lot of calls for it. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has said he’s concerned the president’s aides are not serving him well. CBS News reported that Howard Baker, chief of staff to Ronald Reagan and ambassador to Japan for this administration, had placed a call to the White House on Tuesday and urged the hiring of former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee to inject some new blood. Administration insiders have been leaking to the New York Times and Washington Post about the need for a shake-up. If the White House doesn’t signal that it has heard these complaints, soon someone is going to rent an ad on the side of a blimp.

But what exactly would a shake-up mean? It’s not as though this administration is static. There have already been so many departures from it that they can be broken up into categories:

*I can’t work here: Colin Powell, Rand Beers, and John Dilulio

* I can’t work here; I’ll tell you why in print: Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, Christie Todd Whitman

* My job is done here: George Tenet, Tommy Franks, Paul Bremer

* I can’t work here because I’m going to court: Scooter Libby, Claude Allen, David Safavian

* I can’t work anywhere: Michael Brown

White House churn is not the problem. There has been plenty of fresh blood. Realistically, a shake-up only means one person: Karl Rove. Andy Card may need to go, but he’s not the power in the White House and Bush orbit that Rove is. Rove is the chief political tactician, enforcer, and policy guru. If he doesn’t go, nothing has been shaken up. If he does go, anyone replacing him would have a hard time filling his shoes, especially so fast. Also, to be effective, Rove’s successor is going to need a very strong personality to tell the president and Cheney when they’re wrong and have it stick. (A staffer brought in to tell them when they’re right isn’t needed; there are enough of those.) George Bush likes routine, and it seems impossible that he’d be able to trust this new super-player enough to get anything done in the small amount of time he has left to accomplish anything.

Which brings us to the real problem with a staff shake-up. The issues that plague the president cannot be fixed in the period before Bush becomes a true lame duck. There could be some deck-chair shuffling, and some fancy names might be brought in, but such moves would do little to affect the underlying issues. Relations with members of Congress can’t be fixed fast enough to improve the chances for legislation Bush is pushing. Passing legislation in an election year is tricky enough. It requires trust and a relationship that’s built up over time. Republican members of Congress will join with Bush on issues that are popular, but they’re going to take no risks. Fred Thompson couldn’t change that.

And then there’s Iraq, a problem impervious to bombing, let alone staff changes. A shake-up might give the president a brief honeymoon with the press and the public, but both will last only if identifiable progress occurs in Iraq.

White House advisers also know they will bear the political cost of the staff changes. The reason members of Congress want a staff change is that it will reinforce the idea that the White House is to blame for the current GOP woes. GOP presidential candidates and the Washington insiders who advise them also want an admission that something went terribly wrong inside Bushland—but only inside Bushland, not among Republicans as a group.

Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff James Baker switched jobs with Treasury Secretary Donald Regan to revitalize that presidency, but that shake-up came at the start of Reagan’s second term. Bush is more than a year into his second term. White House aides have long said that they had 18 months of the second term before lame duckness set in. Whether Bush shakes up his staff or not, they’ve only got four more to go on that clock.