Memo to Karen Hughes and Karl Rove

Thomas E. Mann

I know, you didn’t ask for my advice. You seem to be doing
fine without it. Two surprising House victories pulled from the
hat on the eve of the August recess and a prime-time
presidential speech on embryonic stem-cell research that
appears (at least in the short run) to have thread the needle
between warring camps on a devilishly difficult issue. What
was shaping up as an August feeding frenzy on the failures of
the Bush presidency has now been replaced by reflections on
the political deftness and intellectual and moral seriousness of
George W. Bush.

The fact is that the White House did perform impressively on a set of issues that
threatened to rip apart its electoral coalition. And a President who won a
breathtakingly close, disputed election last December and is pressing a policy
agenda for which there is no apparent public market has managed to bank a
major tax cut and keep alive other initiatives during his first half year in office.
Stumbles and setbacks, domestic and international, have also been part of the
record, of course, but the President has managed to keep his head above the
turbulent waters.

So why does this President’s record feel less
substantial, more contrived, than might seem merited?
That’s where the two of you come in.

Was I the only one struck by the bizarre nature of
Karen’s briefing on the President’s decision-making
process on the stem-cell issue? We were told that he
met with serious people and asked probing questions.
He read articles and books. He wrestled with the difficult tradeoffs between
science and ethics. He kept politics out of the Oval Office. Your recitation of the
details of his activities on this issue diminished rather than enhanced the
President’s stature. The proof of a president’s deliberative style is to be found in
the quality of the decision and in his ability to persuade others of its wisdom.
When a senior staff member feels obliged to puff her boss’s seriousness, the
impression left is more one of condescension than respect. One wonders why,
as the President suggested in Italy, he did not engage in a similar deliberative
process on the tax cut, budget, global warming and national missile defense.
And to categorically deny the obvious—that politics was central if not decisive in
reaching the decision (and appropriately so)—is to raise further doubts about the
President you serve.

This is not an isolated incident. The pattern encompasses the President’s
policies as well as personal qualities. When the President squeezed Rep.
Charlie Norwood to abandon his co-sponsors on the patients’ bill of rights and
cut a separate deal with the White House, an impressive, LBJ-style, hard-nosed
partisan victory is trumpeted as a great bipartisan achievement. A tax cut
conceived for a time of economic expansion and growing budget surpluses to
benefit those who pay most of the income taxes is sold as a Keynesian
stimulus for a slowing economy that rewards all Americans. A budget plan
insufficient to keep pace with inflation and an expanding population is said to
provide ample room for a more robust defense and a compassionately
conservative government. A social security privatization plan that requires huge
transition financing and lowered guaranteed benefits for retirees is acclaimed as
a cost-free fix for a bankrupt social insurance system whose trust-fund assets
are said to be nonexistent.

All politicians try to put the best face on their policies. Stitching together an
ideologically diverse coalition requires programmatic and verbal dexterity that
might not meet the rarified standards of theorists of deliberative democracy. The
tools of the modern-day permanent campaign—polling, packaging and
marketing—are utilized by all participants in the policy process. It would be
unfair to expect President Bush to unilaterally disarm. But for a politician who
promised to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office, his administration’s
Alice-in-Wonderland disjuncture between words and deeds, between rhetoric and
reality, raises troubling questions about public character.

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So my advice, Karen and Karl, is to lighten up a bit. The spin is increasingly
transparent. If the President’s policies are wise, don’t pretend they are
something else. If he has a thoughtful and deliberative decision-making style,
don’t tell us about it, let him demonstrate it to the country. If the President really
believes bipartisanship can achieve objectives he favors, then have him seriously
engage the Democratic congressional leadership. If you intend to continue to
rely overwhelmingly on your own party, spare us the empty rhetoric. If you
believe his admirable personal qualities are not fully recognized by the citizenry,
don’t dream up more hokey media events like “Home to the Heartland.” Instead,
let him take his vacations in peace and then afterwards let us see him
unscripted and uncensored in genuine encounters with politicians, journalists
and citizens.

In others words if, as seems clear, you believe fully in the personal capabilities
and policies of your boss, show a little more confidence in him and them.