Until now, only the Democrats seemed to have mastered the art of the retroactive apology. “I was wrong,” said John Edwards and John Kerry and Chris Dodd, while apologizing for their votes to authorize the Iraq war. It strained credulity to think that any Republican, and certainly not a “loyal Bushie,” would ever confess misjudgment, or to even hint that the current president was anything short of peerless.
Yet now we have Matthew Dowd, a former key member of the Bush inner circle, declaring publicly that (a) the Decider has feet of clay, (b) the war in Iraq is a disaster and we should pull out, and (c) the best 2008 candidate might arguably be Barack Obama. A Bush guy was saying this stuff? I thought I was reading a put-on from The Onion. (Today's Onion headline, for instance: "Bush refuses to set deadline for withdrawal of head from White House banister.")
But yes, this was Bush’s 2000 campaign pollster and 2004 chief campaign strategist, telling The New York Times that Bush is not the same man whom Dowd had first fallen in love with. He is upset, for instance, that Bush’s attitude is “my way or the highway.” Moreover, “…I’m so disappointed in things. I think he’s become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in…(He's) not the person I thought…If the American public says they’re done with something, our leaders have to understand what they want. They’re saying, ‘Get out of Iraq.’”
First, a little perspective: It’s not totally unusual for a presidential insider to go public with a renunciation of the boss, even while the boss is still in office. In 1979, ex-Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows wrote a magazine article attacking Carter's "passionless presidency." In 1986,White House budget whiz David Stockman published a memoir that trashed the Reagan tax cuts and dismissed supply-side Reaganomics as mere smoke and mirrors – and this was right after he had helped Reagan sell the budget plan to Congress and the American people. Then in 1987, Donald Regan, fresh from serving the same boss as chief of staff, wrote a memoir claiming that the president was a hapless captive of his wife Nancy, who made key decisions by consulting an astrologer. And a decade after that, ex-Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos went public with a book that detailed many Clintonian flaws.
So Matthew Dowd is the first major player to jump from Bush’s notoriously tight ship; given this president’s downward spiral, it’s not entirely surprising. And, undoubtedly, Dowd’s defection will be fodder for Bush’s critics. But what are we really supposed to think of this guy? Could it be that his renunciation of Bush seems a tad opportunistic? Is it out of line to suggest that this pollster, even while giving voice to his sincere disappointment in Bush, is also distancing himself publicly in order to salvage his own reputation and ensure that he works in the future?
At one point in the Times interview, Dowd said: “I think we should design campaigns that appeal not to 51 percent of the people, but bring the country together as a whole.” Dowd was referring to the fact that Bush decided, almost at the outset of his presidency, to govern as a divider, not a uniter; and to campaign for re-election in 2004 by playing to (and expanding) the conservative base, at the expense of virtually everyone else.
But what Dowd didn’t say, and what the story didn’t say, was that he was arguably the prime architect of the Bush strategy that he is now denouncing. Generally, when ex-aides trash a president, it’s because that president failed to heed their advice (“if he had only listened to me”); here, we seem to have the opposite. Dowd is trashing Bush in part because he did heed Dowd’s advice.
As a 2006 New Republic report makes clear, Dowd wrote a memo right after the 2000 election which argued that Bush should govern as a partisan, rather than seek middle ground; he even persuaded Karl Rove to see it his way. And when they opted in 2004 to stoke the conservative base by trashing John Kerry’s war credentials, Dowd was right in the middle. It worked. As political writer Tom Edsall concluded, in his report, “Four years after he wrote his memo, Matt Dowd was vindicated at the polls.” (In other words, some Bush skeptics, when reading about Dowd’s conversion, might well react by saying, “Now he tells us.”)
And those still residing in the Bush inner circle might well be a tad annoyed that one of the president’s key enablers is publicly declaring a desire “to re-establish a level of gentleness in the world.” And those folks generally don’t like dissenters, anyway. Which is why, as soon as I read Dowd’s remarks, I wondered how they would come after him, and seek to explain away the substance of his remarks. I didn’t have to wait long. On CBS yesterday, White House aide Dan Bartlett suggested that Dowd is dissing the Decider because he is messed up emotionally.
Dowd was recently divorced, a daughter died, and a son is heading to Iraq. Therefore, Bartlett suggested, his criticisms of Bush can be dismissed as the workings of an illogical mind: “I think he’s been on a long personal journey over the last couple of years, both in his private life, as well as his — the politics that he participate in…He himself has acknowledged that he’s going through a lot of personal turmoil but also he has a son who is soon to be deployed to Iraq. That could only impact a parents’ mind…”
The White House worked this angle again today, painting Dowd as overwrought. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "War brings out a lot of emotions," and she cited his "personal hardships." When a reporter asked her whether she was suggesting that Dowd's personal hardships had triggered his defection, she replied, "I don't know." Moments later, she tacked the other way and said, "I think it's relevent." Moments after that, having judged him, she then declared, "I'm not going to judge him."
Will Dowd be offended by those remarks? I doubt it. I met him a few times, and he struck me as a fatalist. As he said in one conversation, in August 2004, “I’m Irish, so of course I expect something bad to happen every time I wake up in the morning.”
In my newspaper column yesterday, I wrote at length about the Bush track record of incompetent governance. I mentioned that liberals tend to frame Bush’s incompetence as an indictment of conservative ideology – arguing, in other words, that those who don’t respect public service are not likely to care about governing well.
But yesterday I received an email from one reader - Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan White House aide and a conservative Bush critic - who argued that there is a link between bad governance and Bush’s policies. I recognized his name; last year he wrote a book entitled Imposter, and assailed many of those policies.
Here’s an excerpt from the email (with his permission):
“I remember two years ago telling my editor that Incompetent might be a better title for my book than Impostor. However, while I still think Bush is incompetent, I think some of those on the right who are belatedly making this argument…are using it as a way of avoiding addressing the actual substance of Bush’s policies. When they complain about incompetence, (they claim that) it is in the implementation of his policies, not in their origination. This is especially the case with regard to Iraq, where right-wingers like (Weekly Standard magazine editor) Bill Kristol would have us believe that the only mistake in Iraq was that we didn’t try harder. They still refuse to accept that the whole operation was fundamentally ill-conceived. This is true of many other Bush policies that were both badly implemented and ill-conceived as well.
“This is where Rudy (Giuliani) worries me. He often comes across as a competent Bush—someone with the same bad ideas, but someone who would do a better job of implementing them. But if the ideas are bad in the first place, is that what we really want? Maybe one of Bush’s saving graces is that he didn’t do a better job on things like getting Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court (or Alberto Gonzales—imagine us with those two instead of Roberts and Alito; it’s frightening).”
By the way, Bruce Bartlett worked until recently for a conservative think tank in Texas. Then he wrote Imposter. Then he sent the manuscript to his think tank boss, as a courtesy. And then he was fired.
No wonder Matthew Dowd is trying to embrace “gentleness.”