The Has-been

All Shook Up

The Bush White House relieves itself in public.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Friday, April 21, 2006

Wild Thing: Say this about Josh Bolten: He’s a reliever. On Wednesday, the president’s new chief of staff relieved Karl Rove of his policy-making duties. With less than subtle hints, he persuaded Scott McClellan to relieve himself of his Snow-job duties. All week long, Bolten has urged White House staff to pack their bags, relieving them of their loyalty duties. Today, the New York Times reports that he wants to relieve White House Counsel Harriet Miers of her has-been duties.

The banner headlines in yesterday’s Washington Post heralding Rove’s demotion suggest that this is how Washington spells relief. Here in the nation’s capital, scandal is the favorite spectator sport, and the current owners have done an excellent job of filling the seats this season. But whenever there’s a break in the action, Washington fans love the chance to watch a good, old-fashioned power struggle—especially when power is dwindling so there isn’t enough to go around.

By that standard, this week’s Kabuki is a good one. Scott McClellan lost the ability to snow the press long ago. If Harriet Miers has any responsibilities left, it’s only because she was the first loyalist Bush forced to walk the plank and withdraw her Supreme Court nomination.

In recent months, Karl Rove’s policy responsibilities have consisted of 1) trying not to go to jail; 2) trying not to get fired; and 3) making sure this year’s State of the Union didn’t propose any policies like the ones he put in last year’s. From the White House to the Congress, Republicans’$2 2006 game plan all along has been to not offer a national agenda. Rove’s job is to try to give voters what they want, which in this case is to relieve the Republicans of their policy responsibilities.

Here in Washington, the crowd roared its approval for taking Rove down a notch. The move gave all sides what they wanted: Congressional Republicans can take credit for the appearance of change; Democrats can keep trashing their favorite bogeyman and pointing out that nothing has changed; the White House can insist that from now on, Rove will spend every moment thinking about the elections, as if in his policy role he had ever thought about anything else.

Reality Show: There are two big problems with the Bush strategy. One trouble with insider power struggles is that the actors take them even more seriously than the fans. On Wednesday, Rove worked hard to spin the story of his own realignment. Despite his best efforts, the White House got the this-is-a-big-deal spin it wanted. Rove discovered what Democrats have said all along about the Ownership Society: You’re bound to end up with a smaller portfolio.

Today’s Miers story is stranger still. The Times article quotes “an influential Republican with close ties to Bolten” saying that pushing her out the door is “a reflection of Josh’s thinking.” Then it quotes the same Republican saying of the shake-up, “This is not Josh, this is Bush. … Bush is very good at using other people as a vehicle to get things done.” Then it reminds us that, as always, we never know who’s using whom: “It was not clear whether Mr. Bolten was floating a trial balloon to gauge White House reaction to the idea, or whether he might have been intending to send a signal to Ms. Miers that he would like her to think about leaving on her own.”

In a White House where Scooter Libby portrayed himself to the Times as a former congressional aide, “an influential Republican with close ties to Bolten” could be anyone from new Bolten deputy Joel Kaplan to President Bush to Josh Bolten himself. We can’t make out the source from here in the cheap seats, but we’re pretty sure it’s not Harriet Miers.

The other trouble with Bolten’s strategy is that calming Republican nerves in Washington won’t help win back voters in November. On the contrary, the less congressional Republicans panic, the less likely they’ll do anything productive. The new Bush White House is doing a fine job of relieving itself—but that’s not a great relief to the American people. … 1:51 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Wet Blanket: Josh Bolten no doubt thinks he had a good first full day as President Bush’s new chief of staff. A steady drizzle on the White House Easter Egg Roll caused the culture war to be called on account of rain. Republicans in Washington cheered Bolten’s inaugural address at Monday’s staff meeting, in which he told White House staffers that if they’re thinking about leaving, this would be a good time to go.

Ken Duberstein, who helped salvage the last two years of the Reagan presidency, told the New York Times that Bolten’s “smart, savvy move” symbolized the prospect of “a revitalized, re-energized team.” The Washington Post says Bolton’s “assertive message was greeted with a mixture of relief and eagerness on Capitol Hill, where Bush’s relations with congressional Republicans have been strained.”

My advice to White House staffers: Take the deal.

I don’t want to sound like a retired White House staffer calling on the White House staff to resign. But working 80 hours a week for the third-most-unpopular president in history must be tough enough without having to listen to the whole town applaud when your recently promoted colleague urges you to clear out your desk.

If congressional Republicans—who have matched the administration scandal-for-scandal, and who haven’t always shown the greatest judgment in picking their own staffs—really think they can do a better job of running the place, White House staffers ought to give them the chance.

Just Joshing: In all likelihood, Bolten’s message was meant for those grumbling Republicans, not the White House staff. He may even have winked at the staff when he said it. Bush staffers know they’re sacrificial lambs. “You’re not going to get anybody to sing your praises,” one administration official told the Post. “It’s about criticism reduction.” A shake-up is the tribute that failure pays to gripes.

Old hands like Duberstein know the score, too. “Adding or subtracting staff is not going to make the war in Iraq go swimmingly,” Republican lobbyist Charles Black told the Post.

The Criticism Reduction Initiative is mostly about running out the clock. Washington always gives a new team a honeymoon, and a White House can extend that honeymoon by turning to new faces who are popular with the old guard—like former Rep. Rob Portman, nominated today to take Bolten’s place at OMB. If the honeymoon goes well, a lame-duck White House can focus on its next challenge—a safe and secure retirement.

Those Who Can, Go: Textbooks about the presidency say that second-term presidents tend to focus on areas where they have more control, like foreign policy. What does a president do when his foreign policy fails? He focuses on the only realm left in his control—the White House staff, which always goes quietly.

Even the Cabinet is hard to send packing, because disgruntled former Treasury secretaries can be a problem (Don Regan, Paul O’Neill), and dismissing an incompetent Defense secretary invokes another Pottery Barn rule: You fire him, you replace him—and then go through confirmation hearings that replay all the mistakes you made together.

Of course, if Congress is really so eager to clean house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they could give Bolten additional tools to do the job. When the Clinton-Gore White House set out to downsize the federal civilian workforce by nearly 400,000, Congress authorized agencies to offer buyouts to encourage some long-time workers to retire.

The Bush years have offered congressional staffers and administration officials a different kind of buyout. Indeed, Republicans could have saved themselves a lot of heartache (and saved the country a lot of money) if they had paid former staffers like Tony Rudy and Ed Buckham to retire instead of going to work as influence peddlers.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Higher-Ups: In what seems like a desperate ploy to have a religious cover during Holy Week, the current U.S. News reports on a fanciful book called The Jesus Dynasty, which contends that, along with John the Baptist, Jesus “saw himself as the founder not of a new religion but of a worldly royal dynasty.” A Florida State oceanographer chose this month’s issue of the Journal of Paleolimnology to unveil his theory that Jesus may not have walked on water but was actually skating on submerged ice during a cold snap in the Sea of Galilee.

But the most interesting 2,000-year-old news this past week was National Geographic’s release of the Gospel of Judas, a Coptic text from an early Christian sect convinced that far from betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot acted with His consent. In the modern political vernacular, Judas’ followers maintained that telling the Romans about Jesus was what the Bush administration might call an authorized release of declassified intelligence.

Last year, Congress and the White House spent Palm Sunday trying to save Terri Schiavo. This year, incumbents couldn’t leave town fast enough. But as Republicans assess the wreckage from Tom DeLay’s ignominious departure and President Bush’s plunging approval ratings, they’ve become immersed in a profound debate about betrayal. The party is searching its soul to answer the question: Who lost conservatism?

Sunday’s Washington Post offered at least three conflicting theories. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey blames his successor: “DeLay, as much as anybody, was responsible for putting the party on the wrong track. … He always wanted his place in the sun.” DeLay’s former communications director John Feehery blames the staff: “Like all great men, Tom DeLay had great talents and one great weakness. In his case, it was some staff members run amok.”

Ari Fleischer, who had the privilege of helping Republicans fail both on Capitol Hill and at the White House, blames incumbency: “There is a risk of majority fatigue where you run out of new ideas. … The other risk is people’s zest for reform yields to their desire to maintain power.”

In a cover story on DeLay’s departure, Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard blames the staff for betraying DeLay and DeLay for not recognizing that “he was a pawn in a criminal enterprise that netted its conspirators millions of dollars.” Continetti closes with DeLay’s ecumenical parting words to Time’s Mike Allen: “We’re all sinners.”

Passive-Aggressive: Tired of being ground zero in the blame game, the White House is busily insisting that President Bush has played no role in his own downfall. Or, in the richly ambiguous phrase David Sanger and David Johnston used in Tuesday’s New York Times to describe the White House spin: “Administration officials insist that Mr. Bush played a somewhat passive role.”

A White House in trouble often reverts to the passive voice: “Mistakes were made.” Apparently, a White House that can’t fathom the trouble it’s in reverts to the somewhat passive voice.

Republicans around the country have good reason to feel betrayed. A decade ago, they thought they were getting a Contract with America, not an endless series of contracts with K Street. In 2000, they didn’t know that when Bush talked about integrity and responsibility, he meant to play a “somewhat passive role.”

But conservatives won’t get very far by spending the coming months debating whether Bush and DeLay were great men let down by zealous staffs, or weak men who let down the side by trying to win at any cost. America lost faith in Congress and the president long before the scandals, because of how they’ve run the country. The real betrayal is not just that a few sinners may have broken the law, but that an administration and a Congress strayed so far from the principles that brought them here in the first place.