George W. Bush
Credit: The U.S. Army/Flickr

Strip away the job titles and party labels, and you will find two kinds of peo- ple in Washington: political hacks and policy wonks. Hacks come to Washington because anywhere else they’d be bored to death. Wonks come here because nowhere else could we bore so many to death. These divisions extend far beyond the hack havens of political campaigns and consulting firms and the wonk ghettos of think tanks on Dupont Circle. Some journalists are wonks, but most are hacks. Some columnists are hacks, but most are wonks. All members of Congress pass themselves off as wonks, but many got elected as hacks. Lobbyists are hacks who make money pretending to be wonks. The Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the entire political blogosphere consist largely of wonks pretending to be hacks. “The Hotline” is for hacks; National Journal is for wonks. “The West Wing” is for wonks; “K Street” was for hacks.

After two decades in Washington as a wonk working among hacks, I have come to the conclusion that the gap between Republicans and Democrats is as nothing compared to the one between these two tribes. We wonks think we’re smarter than hacks. Hacks think that if being smart makes someone a wonk, they’d rather be stupid. Wonks think all hacks are creatures from another planet, like James Carville. Hacks share Paul Begala’s view that wonks are all “propeller heads,” like Elroy on “The Jetsons.” Wonks think the differences between hacks and wonks are as irreconcilable as the Hutus and the Tutsis. Hacks think it’s just like wonks to bring up the Hutus and the Tutsis.

In every administration, wonks and hacks fight it out. The measure of a great president is his ability to make sense of them both. A president must know the real problems on Americans’ minds. For that he needs hacks. But ultimately, he needs policies that will actually solve those problems. For that he needs wonks.

President Bush has husbanded some big policy changes through Congress–a testament to his considerable political skills. Unfortunately, his policies seem to be better at causing problems than solving them. The economy can’t create jobs despite hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus. The reconstruction in Iraq is going over like a remake of Ishtar. The price tag of the new Medicare law is soaring even faster than prescription-drug costs. With a record $521 billion deficit, Bush has just presented what might be called the Justin Timberlake budget, ripping off the taxpayers and pretending it wasn’t on purpose.

Democrats are understandably eager to blame all these epic failures on ideology. To be sure, Bush is running perhaps the most partisan and ideological White House in the modern era. His party’s longstanding fondness for tax cuts has evolved into a pathological need to reduce every remaining burden on the wealthy. But the longer I watch this White House, the more convinced I become that ideology is just a convenient rationalization for why the president’s agenda isn’t working. The real reason is darker and more disturbing: The Bush White House is so obsessed with the politics of its agenda that it never even asks whether it will work.

Hack Attack

Journalist Ron Suskind first sounded this warning in January 2003, in an extraordinary Esquire interview with John DiIulio, the brilliant academic who had resigned from Bush’s faith-based initiative the previous year. DiIulio told Suskind, “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you’ve got is everything–and I mean everything–being run by the political arm.” As if to prove the point, the White House got DiIulio to disavow the allegations as soon as they became public.

Suskind’s new book about former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, The Price of Loyalty, is one long lament on the same theme: the administration’s complete disregard for evidence. O’Neill becomes so desperate for an honest broker that he pleads with, of all people, Vice President Cheney: “[We] need to be better about keeping politics out of the policy process. We need firewalls. The political people are there for presentation and execution, not for creation.” By the time he left, O’Neill actually pined for the less political days of the Nixon White House: “The biggest difference between then and now is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis, and Karl, Dick, Karen, and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics.”

Ironically, putting someone so impolitic in charge of Treasury only strengthened the politicos’ advantage. Dick Cheney and Karl Rove could not have found an easier adversary to ignore. O’Neill proved to be a hopelessly inept bureaucratic warrior, firing off random memos about subjects far beyond Treasury’s purview, such as an action plan on global environmental policy. He and his old friend Alan Greenspan privately wrung their hands over the long-term fiscal consequences of the 2001 tax cut, but publicly (and in Greenspan’s case, disastrously) embraced it anyway. Despite a lifelong reputation for blunt candor, O’Neill managed to meet with the president for an hour every week while only once raising the meekest of doubts about the tax cuts. He has famously said of these meetings, “The president is like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.” But what’s just as deafening is the apparent silence of those who know better.

Every White House worries too much about politics. What DiIulio and O’Neill most tellingly reveal is how little this White House worries about anything else. As DiIulio puts it, “The lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking: discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, etc.”

What Rove Wove

Rove and Cheney routinely say, and no doubt believe, that “good policy makes for good politics.” We said the same thing in the Clinton White House–and over the long haul, it’s almost always true. But the real question is much harder and more interesting: What makes for good policy?

The great irony is that the political equilibrium of the nation’s capital depends on both wonks and hacks, but the two groups can’t even communicate because the hack and wonk dialects have so few words in common. I learned this first as a campaign speechwriter and later as a White House policy geek, when I was sometimes called in to translate. In 1993, I went to a meeting with some of the president’s top communications strategists to plan the signing ceremony for a bill that had just passed the Congress. A wonk had to point out that under the Constitution, if the president fails to sign a bill within 10 days while the Congress is adjourned, the bill is pocket vetoed and does not become law.

On the most politically charged issues, like crime and welfare reform, hacks thought wonks were from Pluto and wonks thought hacks were from Uranus. Near the end of Clinton’s first year in office, a series of high-profile murders produced a groundswell of public support for our crime bill. One group of wonks, terrified that the public might get what it wanted, formed a violence prevention task force whose sole purpose seemed to be churning out ideas the public would not support. The task force included one of the most ridiculously named subcommittees of all time, the “Subgroup on Place.” Hacks still laugh about it.

Wonks were just as quick to sneer at their adversaries. Every time I brought them a message from the hacks, they made me feel like a wonk without a country. When I co-chaired Clinton’s welfare reform working group from 1993-94, every time I won a policy argument, a dissenting member would leak to the press that we were driven by political expediency. Harvard professor David Ellwood, one of two assistant secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services who served as my co-chairs, teased me all the time over how little White House politicos knew about welfare. In The New York Times’ tick-tock story on our efforts, Ellwood gleefully described my role as “right-wing hack.”

Paul O’Neill is nave to wish for an upstairs-downstairs divide, where wonks make all the decisions and hacks get to spin them. As a wonk, I would be the last to suggest that my fellow propeller heads have all the answers. I spent Clinton’s first term across the hall from Ira Magaziner, architect of the administration’s health care plan. The road to Ira’s office was paved with good intentions.

On the other hand, O’Neill is right to worry about the republic if indeed the hacks are in charge. In 1995, when Clinton brought in Dick Morris to get the White House’s politics back on track, I was the wonk assigned to shoot down hack ideas if they didn’t pass wonk muster. Every week, Morris had at least one notion crazy enough to get us laughed out of town. I especially liked his proposal to put voluntary warning labels on violent toys, so that parents would know, for example, that a toy gun was actually a toy gun. Morris always reminded me of the Tom Lehrer song about the German rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? / That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” (For all his faults, though, Morris was often a useful spur to the bureaucracy, because he enabled the White House policy team to deploy our own Madman Theory: If the agencies wouldn’t go along with our sensible proposals, we warned them that the president might just listen to Dick Morris. Agency productivity soared as a result.)

Karl Rove may not have Morris’s eccentricities. But O’Neill’s instincts are correct: Any president who lets people like Rove make the key decisions is sure to get the big ones wrong. Even the most gifted hacks, like Rove and Morris, have an insurmountable blind spot: The only results they understand are polling.

Consider perhaps the most telling example of Rove’s policy input–Bush’s 2002 decision to impose tariffs on imported steel. Bush’s economic advisers unanimously opposed the move, on the grounds that it was directly contrary to the president’s principles, and would cost more jobs at factories that make products with steel than it would help steelworkers. But Rove insisted that politics should trump principle, and that the steel vote was essential to Bush’s hopes in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

And so Rove got a day of headlines in those states, followed by a week of national stories critical of the administration’s cynicism. More important, the results of the policy quickly became clear: An International Trade Commission report found that the tariffs were hurting steel buyers nine times more than they helped steel producers. The move nearly sparked a disastrous trade war with the European Union. In December 2003, the president was forced to reverse himself and abandon the tariffs. The revised political tally sheet shows why Rove is no genius: The president looks unprincipled and foolish, the recovery is slower in key states like Michigan and Florida, and steelworkers are angrier than ever.

As we begin an election year, the paint-by-numbers politics of this White House is wearing thin. The administration threw over conservatives last fall to get a prescription drug bill because elderly voters are crucial in Florida. The result: The bill turns out to cost $134 billion more than the White House told Congress, angry right-wingers have forced Bush to cut other popular programs like Even Start, and even though the drug benefit doesn’t take effect until 2006, polls show the bill is already unpopular among seniors.

When hacks rule, policies often drool–and come back to hurt hacks’ cause. Bush’s proposal to grant temporary legal status to guest workers is another Rove rifle-shot at Hispanics. Unfortunately, Hispanics quickly figured out that the proposal wouldn’t actually lead to citizenship, because the White House had bowed to political pressure from another quarter, the far right. Now most Hispanics don’t like the idea and the right wing hates it. That manned mission to Mars, which the White House hoped would lift Bush’s appeal for a second term, bombed so badly that the President couldn’t even find time to mention it in the State of the Union.

Wonk If You Love the Issues

The American people are a lot smarter than either the hacks or the wonks give them credit for. For all the talk in both parties about the urgent need to win one constituency or another, most Americans apply the same political yardstick: They vote for what works. There aren’t enough hacks, even in Washington, to sell a policy that doesn’t.

Hacks and wonks still need each other. In the end, the best leaders are those who can surround themselves with the best advice from both quarters, and synthesize it to find the wisest, straightest course the nation can sustain. As O’Neill puts it, what holds a good administration together is that the president’s advisers like “the way the president thinks.”

The secret of Bill Clinton’s success was that he was the biggest wonk ever to hold the presidency, with political gifts that no hack could equal. He said he would cut the deficit and boost the economy, and he did. He said he would put more cops on the street to lower the crime rate, and he did. He said he would end welfare as we know it in a way that wouldn’t hurt those in the system, and he did. (The Census Bureau recently reported that poverty among single mothers had fallen by a stunning one-third from 1993 to 2001, a turnaround The Washington Post credited mainly to the work requirements and child support provisions of Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform law.) Clinton was his own best policy adviser, by far, yet he also would have been the greatest political consultant in the history of the world’s second oldest profession.

Presidents don’t have to be super wonks, and George W. Bush certainly never promised to be one. Long before he expressed any interest in the presidency, he was known as a consummate political hack. He worked on several of his father’s campaigns, including as an enforcer in the failed 1992 bid, and even now finds himself dealing with charges that he may have skipped some National Guard duty to work on a Senate campaign.

In the end, Bush’s undoing may be that he has planted his flag so firmly on one side of the wonk-hack divide. Sooner or later, the fate of every White House comes down to the way the president thinks.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Bruce Reed

Bruce Reed served as chief of staff to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden from 2011-2013. He was director of the Domestic Policy Council during the Clinton administration from 1996 to 2001.