The Death of Policy

THE DEATH OF POLICY….The White House has been searching for a replacement for Treasury Secretary John Snow for quite a while, but apparently Robert Zoellick isn’t on the list. Why not?

One influential Republican with close ties to the White House said Mr Zoellick was leaving ?soon? because he was not getting the Treasury job. The Republican added that the White House wanted someone who would be a better salesman. Mr Zoellick is more widely admired for his policy knowledge.

Rule #1 in the Bush White House: never admit that you take policy analysis seriously if you want to get ahead. As near as I can tell, you can overcome nearly any other obstacle but that one.

This is actually my Grand Unified Theory of Bush. Pundits keep trying to figure out just what it is that makes Bush so different from other presidents, but most of them start by trying to figure out what he values. For example, maybe he’s far more dedicated to hardline conservative ideology than any other president? That seems reasonable at first glance, but even a cursory look at the evidence turns up way too many exceptions for this to account for his record.

Pure, ruthless political calculation? There’s plenty of that, but it really doesn’t explain things like No Child Left Behind, the Iraq war, or his immigration policy.

Pandering to the Christian right? Nah. In fact, Bush’s most striking feature in this regard is his cynical willingness to promise the Christian right the moon and then deliver almost nothing. They’re right to be pissed off at him.

Unbridled fealty to business interests? That’s probably the closest to the truth, but what about Sarbanes-Oxley or McCain-Feingold?

The fact is, all presidents rely for their decisions on a complex stew of ideology, interest group pandering, and political calculation. So what is it that makes Bush so different? Just this: until Bush they also all cared about serious policy analysis. This was obviously more striking in some (Clinton) than in others (Reagan), but they all paid attention to it and it informed their actions.

But not Bush. He’s subject to the same stew of competing interests and factions as any other president, but what truly makes him unique is what’s missing: a respect for policy analysis. After eight months of working in the Bush White House, John DiIulio reported that “the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking.” Paul O’Neill described Bush in cabinet meetings as “a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.” A senior White House official told Ron Suskind that the Bush White House is “just kids on Big Wheels who talk politics and know nothing. It?s depressing.” The meltdown at FEMA, the war with the CIA for being insufficiently hawkish, the lack of a serious plan for Social Security privatization, the staffing of postwar Iraq with inexperienced ideologues ? all of these things have the same root cause: a belief that ideas are all that matter.

Of course, that also means that President Bush’s initiatives fail at a truly spectacular rate. After all, policy is all about figuring out how to implement ideas so that they actually work. If you believe that policy is something for effete liberal wonks ? as George Bush evidently does ? your ideas are doomed to failure. In the end, ironically, the one thing that Bush disdains so utterly is the very thing that guarantees his utter failure.

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