The Has-been

Exit, Stage Right

Compassionate conservatism’s last true believer has left the building.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Up the Down Staircase: By the short-term political calculus of Washington, George Bush has had a banner week—watching the military blow up an evil madman in Iraq and the special prosecutor decide not to blow up Karl Rove. With the usual exquisite timing, the Democratic Party waited for the first good news out of Iraq in a year to slap a giant bumper sticker on its forehead that says, “Ask Me About the War.”

But in the arc of political history, this week may well be remembered as the end of Bushism, not a new beginning. Rove, the adviser most responsible for making the Bush years a shallow political exercise doomed to political and substantive failure, won the right to keep it up. Michael Gerson, the adviser who most wanted his boss to serve a higher purpose, is throwing in the towel.

Compassionate conservatism has been dead for some time. It will not be revived. The last true believer has left the building.

Michael Gerson didn’t invent compassionate conservatism. That credit belongs to Newt Gingrich and the Republican class of 1994, who carried antigovernment conservatism to its logical and highly unpopular conclusion—thereby making it impossible for any Republican to win the presidency without a kinder, gentler version.

At that point, Gerson was working with Indiana Sen. Dan Coats on ways to make two great institutions in American life—faith and government—attack common problems like poverty. After our bitter struggle to stop Republicans from shutting down the government, Bill Clinton and the rest of us at the White House had high hopes that this new strain of conservatism would prove to be a more constructive influence. Clinton met with Coats, and Gerson gave me a copy of their agenda.

Masters of Disillusion: Alas, the Republican spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. Rove and others saw the political promise of compassionate conservatism and brought Gerson on to the Bush campaign to write the soundtrack.

But Gerson’s flourishes turned out to be just grace notes in an otherwise conventional composition. Far from a brave new doctrine, Bushism became merely the second coming of Reaganism—tax cuts for the wealthy, photo ops for the poor, favors for narrow interests, and deficits for the rest of us.

That’s Rove’s fault—and Bush’s. I’ve never looked in Bush’s heart, but judging from the way he talks about education or immigration—even without Gerson at the teleprompter—there’s enough compassion to have led the country down a different course. The hollowing of compassionate conservatism was a conscious choice—wrong on the merits and even on the politics. Ultimately, Bush decided that the lesson the country tried to teach Republicans in 1995 (do the right thing) paled alongside the lesson he learned from his father’s defeat in 1992 (do the right’s bidding).

Of course, in some ways, it’s Gerson’s fault, too. He made the conscious choice to move to Austin, Texas, in 1999 to put his faith in Bush as compassionate conservatism’s spiritual leader. By then, Bush’s hollow center was already apparent, and it was clear that John McCain, not George Bush, was the one interested in a genuine, heartfelt transformation of the Republican Party.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Artful Dodger: Karl Rove needed five grand jury appearances and one slick lawyer to avoid losing his job over the dirt he gave Matt Cooper. Yet chances are that Rove’s job will be safe even if a lot of Republican congressmen lose theirs this November because of the bad advice he has given President Bush.

The West Wing—or at least most of it—is no doubt breathing a sigh of relief that the Libby affair will now be primarily a vice-presidential trial. But considering how much damage Rove managed to do to Republican fortunes this past year in his spare time, Josh Bolten must be wondering whether regaining Rove’s full attention is such a bonanza, after all.

Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” For those in power, the corollary is also true: No state is more dangerous than exhilaration.

In a speech to the New Hampshire GOP last night, Rove jubilantly urged Republicans to get over Bush’s unpopularity and run on the economy and the war. “They’re for more spending. We’re for less spending,” he said, proving that in fact, the cover-up is easier than the crime.

If Bolten wants to prove that the White House has turned over a new leaf, he will have to find a way to quiet his exuberant colleague. That seems unlikely. When Bolten took his old friend down a notch, Rove phoned reporters to spin his own demotion.

Swan Song: More likely, the White House will gamble that Rovism can win one last campaign, even though the country has soured on its results. With its nostalgic Kerry-bashing, Rove’s stump speech sounds more and more like yesterday’s strategy. The swing looks familiar, but it just doesn’t travel as well without the steroids.

Rove will probably stay at the White House through November, in the hope that avoiding a midterm debacle, like dodging an indictment, will be a form of vindication. But even if Democrats don’t win in 2006, the Rove era is already over. The Republican Party of Mark Hanna and William McKinley is dead. Either they turn to Teddy Roosevelt, or they will be stuck in their own tub, like William Howard Taft.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but not necessarily wiser. In his New Hampshire speech, Rove made a curious historical allusion to Warren Harding, who escaped indictment the hard way, by dying in office. “This damn job will kill you,” he quoted Harding as saying. “But it will not this man”—namely, Bush.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Monday, June 12, 2006

That ‘00s Show: Last month, former advisers to former rivals Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford announced plans to use the Internet to launch a third party as an antidote to hyper-partisanship. The group, called Unity08, hopes to nominate a fusion ticket in 2008. As might be expected of a movement that spans the ‘70s and the ‘00s, its founders are disproportionately grandparents and college students.

This past week, bloggers gathered in Las Vegas for the YearlyKos convention. (Disclosure: Kos is not a big fan of my work.) The bloggers share a different goal: to use the Internet to make Democrats more aggressively partisan. Their leader stressed that the average age of the bloggers was 45. The MSM—obsessed with Baby Boomers—found bloggers in their 60s, perhaps in a mischievous attempt to suggest that a movement which spans the ‘60s and the ‘00s is disproportionately grandparents and college students.

Cry If I Want To: If bloggers are angry about being out of power, six years of being in charge has left conservatives downright despondent. On Friday, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay left Congress so he can spend more time with the criminal justice system. DeLay said his only regret was that his ruthless, partisan bloodlust didn’t go far enough.

His ruthless, partisan followers agree. Richard Viguerie has launched a Web site called to complain that Bush—the most partisan and conservative president in history, with the most partisan and conservative Congress—has destroyed the Republican Party by not being partisan and conservative enough.

Politics is more polarized, and both parties are more partisan, than anyone can remember. Yet on both sides, partisans are more frustrated than ever with their own parties, and non-partisans are most frustrated of all.

Across the spectrum, American politics has produced a remarkable paradox: Everyone on both sides hates the opposing party, but most are nearly as unhappy with their own.

Soul Searching: Can these parties be saved? Republicans have the more fundamental problem: Their base is demanding ever deeper fealty to a philosophy that everyone else in America can see just doesn’t work. As if we needed further proof, the FBI announced today that the crime rate is going up for the first time since the previous Bush administration. Republicans’ only hope is to build a better conservatism that doesn’t indenture the country to ideological interest groups and borrowing from the Chinese.

Democrats, who have a working philosophy for how to govern, have the seemingly simpler challenge of remembering how to win. But as Michael Grunwald and Dan Balz pointed out in yesterday’s Washington Post, becoming obsessed with victory doesn’t necessarily make it more likely.

In fact, the price of losing is that Democrats have squandered much of the last six years in a circular debate over campaign strategy. As Grunwald observes, the never-ending intra-party struggle over electoral tactics has had the perverse effect of making everyone involved seem less principled than they actually are.

A party in opposition can paper over its differences and unite against the other side. But in the long run, this is less a blessing than a curse. In order to govern, a party has to sort out its principled differences in a way that serves the country’s interests as well as its own.

For conservatives, Bush has done the opposite—siding with the conservatives where they’re wrong (for example, on big tax cuts for the wealthy), and breaking with them in the name of expedience on the rare occasions when they’re right (for example, their fear that the Medicare drug bill would turn out to be an expensive boondoggle).

Democrats would be a lot happier with ourselves and our party if we spent more time debating how we would make use of power, and less time debating how we regain it. Since 2000, Democrats have pretended that we largely agree on all the issues, and that we settled our philosophical differences during the Clinton years. But solving the challenges we face—forging a new social contract so Americans can get ahead again; making America safe; cleaning up the culture of corruption we campaign against—will require working through those differences all over again.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Jolly Rotten: Now that the U.S. finally has some welcome news from Iraq, the Bush administration will try harder than ever to persuade Americans that things are looking up here at home. The lack of progress on Bush’s domestic agenda rules out a Rose Garden strategy. So, the White House will try a rose-colored-glasses strategy instead.

Bush desperately needs America to cheer up. As long as two-thirds of Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction, the White House ploy to turn the midterms into a “choice” election won’t work—too many people will choose change. If Karl Rove could have his way, he’d open the Medicare prescription drug benefit to all Americans, and offer only one drug: Zoloft.

White House strategerist Peter Wehner administered the first dose on Monday, in an op-ed that crowed about America’s “remarkable cultural renewal.” Tony Snow has an anchorman’s unique talent for delivering bad news with a smile.

But the sunniest fellow in the Bush White House may be the new domestic policy adviser, Karl Zinsmeister. Claude Allen, Zinsmeister’s predecessor, put on a happy face for the wrong reason. By contrast, the new man is so upbeat that last year, he published an entire book on the subject.

Zinsmeister is better known for his books on Iraq, including the first Marvel comic book on the war. In 2005, however, he edited a collection of heart-warming vignettes called In Real Life. The publishers’ description reads like a Bush stump speech:

Compared to the Americans inhabiting TV-land and Manhattan novels, the men and women you’re about to meet have carved out existences (often against the odds) that are bright with meaning. Among these teachers, farmers, businessmen, writers, cops, doctors, soldiers, and mothers—most with deep roots in the “fly-over” territories of our heartland—there is less cultural rot, a strong attachment to tradition, a deep reliance on God, an overriding preference for family, and abundant good sense and good cheer.

Of course, that’s not sufficient reason to read the book. As David Plotz has repeatedly pointed out, “cultural rot” is the key to all great literature, even the Bible.

Give the Audience a Grin: But Zinsmeister’s introduction is revealing, and helps explain why he should fit right in at the White House. In fact, his words may well have been the crib notes for Wehner’s op-ed piece. Zinsmeister writes, “Consider some of the ways in which our collective lives have become better, stabler, sunnier, and saner over the last generation.” He then provides a four-page litany of modern progress.

Like Wehner, Zinsmeister highlights a host of good news that his new boss had nothing to do with. Since 1991, violent crime has dropped to a 30-year low. Teen pregnancy is at a record low. The number of welfare recipients has dropped 60 percent since welfare reform.

Zinsmeister goes on: Suicide is down 20 percent since the early ‘80s. Binge drinking hit a record low among high schoolers. Divorce and abortion are down 25 percent in recent decades. His optimism knows no bounds: He raves that 64 percent of adults work—up from 57 percent in the 1970s—then claims that Generation X moms are twice as likely as Baby Boomers to spend a majority of their day on child rearing.

Zinsmeister’s most embarrassing statement is that “poverty among black Americans has fallen 25 percent over the last ten years.” A more accurate statement would be that African-American poverty went down every year under Clinton—falling by one-third to an all-time low—and has gone up every year under Bush. Perhaps Zinsmeister’s book might have been more convincing if it hadn’t come out the same week Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Unfortunately, Zinsmeister reveals his true colors when his rousing litany of American social progress ends with this:

The number of college freshman describing themselves as conservatives now equals the portion calling themselves liberals. A generation ago, self-described liberals outnumbered conservatives three to one.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Divided We Stand: These days, conservatives are confused about many things: To spend, or not to spend? To fence, or not to fence? To free, or not to free?

In the depths of this identity crisis, two age-old tenets have held the conservative faith together: America is the greatest country on earth, and America is going to hell in a handbasket.

Conservatives fall roughly into two camps, depending on which of those truths they hold to be more self-evident. Economic conservatives see America’s glass as half-full—and if they’re supply-siders, believe that the glass is always just one more tax cut for the wealthy from overflowing. By contrast, cultural conservatives see through a half-empty glass darkly.

For the most part, the Republican coalition can only expand its reach when the optimists gain the upper hand. Ronald Reagan believed it was always morning in America. “The night is passing,” George W. Bush agreed in 2000. “Americans live on the sunrise side of the mountain.”

Dark Shadows: When Republicans are in trouble, darkness returns. “I want to remove the shadow that darkens opportunities,” Bob Dole said in his opaque 1996 acceptance speech. Dole warned of America’s cultural collapse and promised a bridge to the past (which, in turn, inspired Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st Century”).

In 2000, Bush sounded as optimistic as the old Anita Bryant slogan that “a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.” By 2004, he sounded like Anita Bryant, the anti-gay crusader, campaigning as if same-sex marriage were the second gravest threat to civilization after the war on terror.

This week, with his transparent cheerleading for a same-sex marriage amendment, Bush’s message has gone dark again: The sun is setting on America’s values, and Americans live on the Brokeback side of the mountain now.

But back at the ranch, the supply-side optimists on the president’s staff are winking at his prophecies of cultural doom. Yesterday, while Bush brought conservative activists to the White House for a same-sex marriage amendment pep rally, a top Bush staffer, Peter Wehner, director of the infamous “Office of Strategery,” wrote in the Washington Post: “We are witnessing a remarkable cultural renewal in America.”

In the same way that Bush’s radio address was a desperate cry for political help from disgruntled social conservatives, Wehner’s op-ed, “And Now for Some Good News,” is a desperate plea for mercy from the general public. His argument is essentially that while Bush policies may be failing from the Middle East to the Gulf Coast and from energy to immigration, those failures “aren’t the whole story—and they ought not color the lens through which we see all other events.”

Good Night, and Good Luck: Wehner complains that Americans aren’t hearing about all the good news—for example, of social progress on crime, welfare dependency, and teen pregnancy. Of course, one reason Americans aren’t hearing good news about social progress is that the White House is telling us just the opposite—that America’s social fabric has never been in greater danger.

But the main reason Americans aren’t giving the Bush administration credit for good news is that Bush policies have had absolutely nothing to do with the social progress Wehner just discovered. He notes that violent crime is at a record low but fails to point out that most of the decline came in the ‘90s—thanks in large part to a sustained national effort to put more police on the street, get criminals’ guns off the street, and put violent repeat offenders behind bars. Bush’s contribution has been to cut funding for police and ignore those guns.

Wehner observes that “welfare caseloads have declined almost 60% since 1996” but fails to note that it’s because Bill Clinton got a Republican Congress to enact a welfare-reform law that year. It took Bush five years just to get Republicans to pass a routine reauthorization of the law.

The strategerist notes that teen smoking has dropped by almost 50 percent since the late ‘90s but fails to mention the reason—a sweeping settlement in the ‘90s between the states and tobacco companies that led to higher prices and ambitious counter-advertising. The Bush contribution: gutting the Justice Department’s case against the tobacco industry.

As Wehner points out, “Between 1960 and the mid-’90s virtually every social indicator got worse—and in many cases staggeringly worse.” True enough. But this leads him to the Immaculate Conception theory of social progress: “Then things began to turn around, almost as if a cultural virus created its own antibodies.”

Until the early ‘90s, a cultural virus did spread throughout the land: wedge politics, in which conservatives moaned about cultural issues but never did anything about them. That, in turn, created antibodies—an electorate of voters who wanted their leaders to solve problems, not whine about them.

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.