The Has-been

Original Zins

Bush’s new domestic piquancy adviser.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Friday, June 2, 2006

Free Agents: These days, President Bush isn’t signing many bills. But he and his new general manager Josh Bolten have been signing big-name players faster than George Steinbrenner after a Yankee losing streak. Tony Snow. Gen. Michael Hayden. Henry Paulson. Bush might have brought Roger Clemens out of retirement to head the Border Patrol, if the Astros hadn’t offered him $22 million first.

Last week’s big free-agent signing was Karl Zinsmeister, who will take over the domestic policy post that Claude Allen traded in for a $2.50 refund at Target. Zinsmeister brings strong credentials. Like a true Has-Been-to-be, he edits the magazine at a think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. He has written extensively on crime and other domestic issues. He was an aide to the late Sen. Pat Moynihan, who had held the same job for Richard Nixon before turning it over to John Ehrlichman, the last White House wonk to continue his domestic policy pursuits behind bars.

Thanks to sharp reporting by Josh Gerstein of the New York Sun, Zinsmeister’s appointment was marred by the discovery that he had doctored quotes in a newspaper profile about him that was posted on the AEI Web site. In an August 2004 article in the Syracuse New Times, Zinsmeister had said, “People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings.” On the AEI site, he changed his quote to read, “I learned in Washington that there is an ‘overclass’ in this country stocked with cheating, shifty human beings that’s just as morally repugnant as our underclass.”

This week, Zinsmeister tried to quell the controversy by confessing his crime to the Washington Post. According to the Post, he claims he “has long studied issues of class and morality,” and the Syracuse reporter must have misheard him in a crowded restaurant. He went on to explain that Bush hired him for his bluntness. “That’s somewhat of the bond between us,” he told the Post. “There’s so much insincerity in the political discourse.”

Art for Art’s Sake: Blunt may not be the right word for it, but as John Dickerson suggests, little lies might be one way to bond with Bush. Last Friday, poor Tony Snow defended Zinsmeister’s rewrites as “unartful.” On Tuesday, he had to defend a Bush lie as “artfully worded.” At that same press conference, Snow took an earful from Helen Thomas over Zinsmeister’s comments. Snow explained that like Thomas, the new guy “expresses himself with a certain amount of piquancy.”

Snow has a point, although it’s not much of a defense. As Michael Crowley has observed, Zinsmeister doctored his most infamous quote to be more offensive, not less. Anyone can trash Washington; it takes a sharp editor’s pencil to figure out how to turn an attack on K Street into a sweeping condemnation of the underclass.

As a serious wonk who hasn’t broken any laws, Zinsmeister is a better choice than his predecessor, Claude Allen. But he and Josh Bolten must be wondering the same thing that Allen and Andrew Card must have wondered six months ago: Has this appointment already been more trouble than it’s worth?

Zinsmeister and his family live in upstate New York in the beautiful little town of Cazenovia, where they can swim in the summer, ski in the winter, and never cross paths with the repugnant, cheating, and shifty. Even in its heyday, the Bush White House showed scant interest in domestic policy. Its attitude was that wonks in general, and domestic ones in particular, should be neither seen nor heard.

It’s one thing to put out firestorms for a domestic policy adviser like Joe Califano or Pat Moynihan who sparks controversy to advance the president’s agenda. It’s harder to see the point of those firestorms when there’s no policy to go with them, and when the blunt truths aren’t actually true.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Meltdown: After a power surge put our family’s refrigerator out of commission over the holiday weekend, we were forced to conduct a warrantless search of our freezer. No marked bills were found, although if the repairman ever shows up, he will ask for some. My wife used to be a Justice Department prosecutor, but the only separation of powers issue triggered by the search was why she had to do most of the work.

We’re lucky—we just need a new compressor. Republican House members are in a much worse bind. The power surge of the last few years seems to have zapped their conservatism beyond recognition or repair.

Not so long ago, conservatives went into politics because they believed there was no such thing as unreasonable search and seizure. In their world view, only a criminal-coddling liberal would cower behind trumped-up constitutional concerns, rather than stand with honest law enforcement officials who were just doing their job.

Likewise, not so long ago, card-carrying conservatives despised the institution of Congress. In a showdown with the executive branch, they were about as likely to side with the legislative branch as with the dreaded United Nations.

In fact, since the days of Ronald Reagan, if not longer, the conservatives’ Constitution began and ended with Article II. No need for the messy legislature, which can only slow the march of the executive. No use whatsoever for the judiciary, with its nefarious plot to legislate from the bench. Not even much call for the Bill of Rights, except for the 2nd Amendment and the 10th Amendment, which are hardly necessary if you can chuck the rest.

Saturday Night’s Already for Fighting: But as the current brouhaha over a DOJ search of Rep. Bill Jefferson’s office made clear, conservatives in Washington no longer know what to believe or where to turn. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was so angry about the search that he not only fumed to President Bush aboard Air Force One, but joined with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a rare bipartisan display to denounce the action. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist checked with Attorney General Gonzales and said the search was fine by him.

As constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out, there’s nothing in the Constitution to justify Hastert’s “white-hot” reaction. Instead, the Jefferson affair is a Rorschach test of the conservative mood—which is universally sour, but for different reasons.

Hastert was speaking for a disgruntled caucus desperate to distance itself from the White House, even if it means siding with Pelosi and Jefferson over Bush and company. Today, House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner joined forces with Rep. John Conyers to hold a hearing on “Reckless Justice,” with witnesses decrying the Saturday night “Rayburn raid.” Republicans can’t seem to decide whether to run the fall campaign against Pelosi and Conyers, or try to ride their coattails.

Frist himself embodies the confusion. Last week, he echoed Hastert’s criticism. By Sunday, he seemed to be speaking instead to conservatives around the country who were bewildered by Hastert’s rush to defend a Democrat.

Forced to choose between a bureaucratic revolt and a congressional one, Bush ordered Justice to seal the materials it found in Jefferson’s office and put the feud on ice for 45 days. That may give tempers time to cool, but it won’t do much to repair the underlying anger and frustration that dizzied conservatives in the first place.

Yelling “Fire”: Endangered incumbents generally fall into two camps: panic and denial. In the general populace, denial is the more common trait. In Washington, by contrast, evolution has made panic the far more widespread election-year survival instinct.

House Republicans started panicking months ago—and until recently, there appeared to be some chance they might channel that panic in a productive fashion. After the Abramoff plea, for example, Republican leaders rushed to propose ethics changes designed to show voters that the caucus had learned its lesson.

In recent weeks, however, House Republican panic ceased to be a corrective impulse and has degenerated into self-defeating stubbornness and chaos. They lost interest in an ethics bill, even as a Democratic scandal offered them an excuse to deflect a little blame. They put themselves in a no-win position on immigration: If they get their way by passing an enforcement-only bill—or if nothing happens—President Bush will drag them down by looking like an even bigger failure; if Bush gets his way, the conservative base will have another ready excuse to stay home.