Bush Administration Follies (or Not)

My favorite paragraph from the last week:

From the outset, the choice of VaxGen proved controversial. The company had never produced a drug before, it had been delisted from Nasdaq a few months earlier for failure to file timely financial statements and it was embroiled in an ethical dispute in Thailand over human testing of another drug. But VaxGen did have certain advantages, not least that it had been working on a new anthrax vaccine for two years already, financed by $100 million from Fauci’s N.I.A.I.D.

Yeah, I guess that would make it controversial.

That’s from the NYT Magazine front-page scare story about biological weapons last Sunday, and it reminds me of a continuing non-story, or sort-of-story, that I’ve remarked on before: the question of just how poorly the government operated in the Bush years. As I’ve said, I expected quite a few stories to emerge of massive incompetence in multiple agencies. Why? BecauseI suspected that Bush didn’t do very much management of the bureaucracy, and Congressional oversight basically collapsed.

So what do we have? The big ones: the occupation of Iraq, detention/torture, and generally the management of Gitmo. I think I’d count the SEC — not the failure of the law to keep up with Wall Street, but the failure of the agency to carry out what it was charged to do. That agency that was supposed to regulate drilling in the Gulf…the Minerals Management Service, right?

What else? I’m not interested here in poor policy choices; I’m interested in dysfunctional agencies who carried out policy poorly, whatever that policy might have been.

I think, overall, that my expectation that there would be lots of awful-sounding stuff uncovered has turned out to be wrong. Most notably, I’m not aware of cases of fraud and corruption, such as those that marked the Reagan Administration, which was pretty much the basis for my expectations.

But overall, I’m just not sure (and I’m not at all sure that the paragraph I started this post with is actually an example of agency dysfunction; it might be, but mostly it just reminded me of the topic). What do people think? I’m not really aware of any systematic look at this sort of question (I’d be interested to hear what Matthew Dickinson thinks about it). My general sense is that the early Bush administration had above-average personnel in the White House staff, but a far below average president and a weirdly destructive wild card in the VP slot…I’d compare it with a Clinton administration that started out with unusually below-average WH personnel but improved dramatically over time, or an Obama administration that started with a pretty good WH staff but a president who has at times seemed (from what we know so far, which could be very incomplete) to pay a lot more attention to the legislative than the administrative side of the job. I’m wondering, however, whether my impression is correct.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.