Monday, August 13, 2007

The draining of "Bush's Brain"

Karl Rove is upbeat and unbowed as he heads for the exit with his head held high. He insists that “Iraq will be a better place” thanks to the Surge, that President Bush “will move back up in the polls,” that the ’06 Republican wipeout was “a really close election,” and that he did not screw up big time in 2005 when he drained Bush’s political capital by putting his boss on the road to stump in vain for the partial privatization of Social Security.

So says the political guru better known by the nickname “Bush’s Brain,” in his de facto resignation announcement, which appeared today in a predictably sycophantic column nestled within the friendly confines of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Clearly, he will continue to dwell within the reality-challenged Bush bubble long after he departs at the end of this month, purportedly to spend more time with his family.

Much will be said in the days ahead about how Rove’s signature ambition – crafting permanent majority status for the GOP – turned to ashes in the second-term wreckage of the Bush administration, and about how his combative philosophy of polarized governance probably hastened his boss’ demise. Many observers will cite many different examples. I will cite only one: The aforementioned ’05 campaign to partially privatize Social Security, not only because it illustrates Rove’s arrogance and his fundamental misreading of the public mood, but also because (most importantly) it exposed one of the president’s most fundamental flaws.

Rove had this idea that Social Security “reform” would be good politics, that it would permanently draw into the Republican fold millions of voters who had more faith in the markets than in the federal government. So in the aftermath of Bush’s 2004 re-election victory, when the president’s political stock was at its apogee, he put Bush on the road – for months on end – to talk up the concept of a Social Security overhaul.

There were warning signs, all of which Rove ignored. Bush’s ’04 victory was actually the narrowest re-election win by any president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The ’04 election was fought over Iraq, with virtually no mention of a market-based Social Security program or any indication that the public was hungering to overhaul one of the most popular government programs of the 20th century. Nor was there any appetite, within the congressional GOP majority, to take on such a politically risky endeavor. But Rove (who treated Capitol Hill Republicans with high-handed disdain) figured that once Americans got the opportunity to hear Bush wax eloquent about the conservative vision for Social Security, their hearts and minds would follow, and then the GOP lawmakers would simply implement the Rove vision.

But a weird thing happened during that spring of 2005. The longer Bush stayed on the road talking up partial privatization, the more people got turned off to the idea. The more he tried to explain it, the more confused people became. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq kept getting worse (this was roughly $200 billion ago), and, consequently, the more Bush talked about Social Security, the less popular he became, and the more finite political capital he expended.

As GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio now tells The Atlantic magazine, thinking back to those first months of 2005, “We came out of the election and what was our agenda for the next term? Social Security. There was nothing else that we were doing. We allowed ourselves as a party to be defined by – in effect, to live and die by – the war in Iraq.”

Yet even when the failures of the privatization pitch were obvious, Rove reportedly opted to stay the course and keep Bush talking. In the fortuitously-timed Atlantic article, a former Bush official laments, "The great cost of the Social Security misadventure was lost support for the war. When you send the troops to war, you have no higher responsibility as president than to keep the American people engaged and maintain popular support. But for months and months after it became obvious that Social Security was not going to happen, nobody - because of Karl's stature in the White House - could be intellectually honest in a meeting and say, 'This is not going to happen, and we need an exit strategy to get back onto winning ground.' It was a catastrophic mistake."

And it was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end. The Katrina debacle soon followed, the war got even worse, and the historic Republican realignment long envisioned by Rove was rudely interrupted by the loss of the House and Senate in 2006, in what he still dismisses as “a very close election.” (That’s an old Rove delusion, which I refuted here.)

Still, it would be unfair to put all the blame on Rove. It is important to remember that he was merely the backstage guru to a guy who often seemed to have little more than a passing relationship with the English language. It is theoretically possible that Americans might have embraced partial privatization if the concept had been pitched by a president blessed with rhetorical coherence; instead, it was pitched by Bush.

What follows is verbatim, taken directly from a White House transcript. The place was Tampa, Florida. The date, Feb. 4, 2005. A woman has asked about the hefty transition costs of moving Social Security into the private realm. Bush replied:

“Because the - all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be - or closer delivered to what has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the - like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate - the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those - if that growth is affected, it will help on the red. Okay, better? I'll keep working on it.”

I know we’re all supposed to pay obeisance these days to the Cult of the Consultant, but perhaps we should remember that, in the end, a consultant is probably only as good as his client. In the end, Bush's Brain could not supply him with a silver tongue.