Respond to this Article September 2002

Confidence Men

Why the myth of Republican competence persists,
despite all the evidence to the contrary.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Let's be honest. As upset as you may have been in January 2001 that George W. Bush was going to be president, you had to admit he had a pretty impressive team. They had beaten a sitting vice president with seemingly every advantage; they outmuscled and outmaneuvered the Gore camp during the Florida recount; and despite the abbreviated transition, they quickly and smoothly assembled a seasoned White House staff. Many top appointees were in their second or third tour of government service; they exuded experience and know-how--and not just in the splendid isolation of academia or the permissive chaos of campaign work, but in the rugged practicalities of commanding American industry. Dick Cheney was the signature figure: a former White House chief of staff, congressman, and wartime defense secretary, whose vaunted government savvy had been validated in the private sector as CEO of the energy giant Halliburton. Like the administration, Cheney was right-wing, but in a way that was at once daunting and oddly reassuring. You may not have liked what he was doing. But you had little doubt that he knew what he was doing.

Today, that record doesn't look nearly so impressive. We now know that as CEO, Cheney got snookered into a disastrous merger that has since sent Halliburton's stock price plummeting, while signing off on dubious balance sheets that have sparked a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. His mastery of the Beltway is similarly in question. Last year's Cheney-led energy task force produced an all-drilling-no-conservation energy bill that went nowhere. The task force's real legacy was to mire the administration in a thicket of congressional investigations and private lawsuits, all springing from Cheney's insistence on Nixonian secrecy. His major foreign policy gambit--last spring's shuttle-diplomacy mission to the Middle East to secure support for an invasion of Iraq--was a debacle. The tough-talking VP went to the region to line up the Arab states behind the United States against Saddam; days after Cheney's return they were lining up behind Saddam against the United States. Less well known, but no less embarrassing, was Cheney's leadership of the pre-9/11 anti-terrorism task force. In spring 2001, rather than back congressional efforts to implement the findings of the Hart-Rudman commission, Cheney opted to spearhead his own group, to put the administration's stamp on whatever reforms occurred. But the task force did almost nothing for four months until terrorists struck on September 11. More recently, it was Cheney who advised Bush not to include any serious corporate reforms in his July speech on Wall Street, the one that sent markets plunging. While no one bats a thousand in politics, it's actually difficult to think of one thing the vice president has been responsible for that has not ended in muddle or disaster. Yet his reputation for competence has survived.

The same applies to the Bush administration generally. After some early successes, like the tax cut and the education bill, most administration initiatives have gone nowhere. The White House's cocky bullheadedness turned Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords into an Independent and gave the Democrats the Senate. Its budget predictions were in shreds well before September 11. Social Security privatization went bust long before the market did. During the California energy crisis, the administration refused for months to cap wholesale energy rates. This ill-advised move looked like payback to price-gouging energy firms like Enron and drove California even further beyond Republican reach, probably for years to come. Instead of disengaging from the Middle East peace process, as Bush had promised, he is ever more mired in its problems. When, predictably, bloodshed spilled out of control, the administration rushed forth one peace plan after another, each with a half-life measured in weeks. The president talked tough against McCain-Feingold; then he signed it. And after September 11, he insisted, against the advice of almost every expert, that the country didn't need a cabinet-level homeland security agency, instead entrusting this vital task to an adviser, Tom Ridge, who lacked experience and authority and quickly became a Washington laughingstock. Seven wasted months later, Bush burst forth with a brand-new plan: a cabinet-level homeland security agency.

Bush has certainly achieved a handful of significant victories; but so, too, had Bill Clinton at this point in his first term (the '93 budget, the Family and Medical Leave Act). And yet most people remember Clinton's first two years, with some justification, as a chaotic disaster. Somehow, despite this laundry list of screw-ups and failed initiatives, the Bush administration largely retains its reputation for awesome managerial competence--a reputation that cows even Democrats. Many have wondered why the administration suddenly floundered when confronted with this summer's corporate corruption scandal. The real mystery is how the White House failed to advance its agenda for so long without anyone noticing. Why does the myth of Bush administration competence persist after ample evidence has emerged to show that it simply isn't true?

An MBA in Every Office

A number of obvious factors offer part of the answer. Foremost among them is September 11, which temporarily dwarfed all else. The nation rallied around the president, and his administration quickly provided good reasons for doing so. The president not only drove the Taliban from power, as he said he would. He also hit his rhetorical stride, explaining for the American people the grand task upon which they were embarking. Bush reassured the nation of his administration's steely know-how even when he couldn't tell the public precisely what was being done in their name.

The Bushies also excel at the atmospherics and trappings of competence. Meetings start punctually. Everyone stays on message. Staffers don't leak. Everyone wears suits. The early Clinton administration's relative openness and extreme leakiness made the White House like a body with translucent skin. Not just every goof and foul-up, but every normal but unappetizing political process was on perfect and oftentimes excruciating display. Even successful legislative battles like the 1993 budget reconciliation bill--the measure that set the stage for declining deficits and the groundwork for sustained growth--were drawn out with an almost masochistic relish and always left within a hairsbreadth of failure. Many of the president's key advisers mixed cockiness with subtle hints that they weren't sure they belonged there. Particularly in a wartime setting, the Bushies' buttoned-down, all-business approach contrasted favorably with the on-the-edge atmosphere of the Clinton years.

Simple as it may sound, the Bush White House's reliably tight discipline papered over a host of missteps and blunders. And the White House's aggressive assertions of executive privilege--such as blocking the sleuths at the GAO from peeking inside the White House and ordering agencies to resist complying with Freedom of Information requests--have also kept potential embarrassments out of the public eye. The Bush national security team made an enormous error in shelving the plan to roll back al Qaeda that Clinton administration anti-terrorism officials handed them in January 2001. But until Time broke the story last month, the White House was marvelously adept at bullying Congress out of a public investigation that might have uncovered this months earlier. What made so many early Clinton blunders into real debacles was watching them play out in all their ugly detail. The gays in the military flap, for instance, revealed the new president's uncertainty, the ease with which he was set up by his political opponents, his inability to keep his supposed allies in hand, and the fact that the commander-in-chief got rolled by the military brass. It was all right there in front of you.

On the merits, the collapse of the Bush administration's energy policy or its bumbling on Social Security were missteps of at least as great a magnitude. Yet nobody leaked details about the internal struggles, and so no accusations were leveled and no one had to admit that anything had gone wrong. Robbed of these particulars, journalists had a difficult time writing the story, since, in the absence of juicy narrative, they would be required to explain and analyze policy matters. And that's not a story most journalists are equipped to write.

Media-criticism scolds say this is because reporters focus on process rather than substance and that this is a terrible thing. But it's hard to imagine how it could or should be otherwise. Readers like reading narratives. The problem is that over time, process and atmospherics get to be what most reporters know and understand. And they end up seeing punctuality and efficiency--good process--as signs that people know what they're doing. In the Bible, Saint Paul says that God took Abraham's faith and accounted it to him as righteousness. The press takes the Bush administration's punctuality and accounts it to them as competence.

The Bushies have the added advantage of another sort of media bias that often goes unnoticed. Most journalists are Democrats. But that doesn't necessarily help Democrats or hurt the GOP in the way whiny conservatives like to imagine. In a Democratic White House, journalists identify with the administration, whose policies and beliefs tend to mirror their own. But this familiarity makes it easy to criticize when things go wrong (and even when they don't). Reporters understand a Democratic administration's flaws more readily because it's made up of people much like themselves. This is a large part of what made the media's relationship with the Clintonites so toxic. At its nadir, coverage of the administration got caught up in a vortex of baby-boomer self-loathing; familiarity bred contempt.

Quite a different dynamic applies in a Republican administration, particularly one whose business savvy enjoyed so much advanced billing. Most political reporters don't identify much with wealthy CEOs, and even less so with corporate honchos from the oil patch. But rather than this hurting them, members of the Bush administration benefited tremendously from just how alien they seemed to many in the press. Bush campaigned and assumed office against the backdrop of the go-go, boom-market culture of the late '90s, which showered praise on the sort of corporate leaders who made up the Bush team. In the long run, the fact that the administration is stocked with ex-CEOs like Dick Cheney and Don Evans might hurt it. But in the short-run, many reporters had a hard time seeing through their mumbo-jumbo and conceits. Until recently, few could believe that the Bushies could run such a tight ship and yet still not know how to steer it. It's Dick Cheney, after all! He must know what he's doing!

Talk, Bluff and Bluster

This unfamiliarity and heightened expectation, matched with the trappings of competence, gave potency to what has turned out to be the Bush administration's signature political tactic: the confidence game. The confidence man is a stock figure in American culture, originating--perhaps not coincidentally--in the boomtowns of the Old Southwest. He's the snake-oil salesman, the wildcat land speculator who mixes boundless optimism with quick talk, bluff, and bluster. The administration is led by such men.

Americans got their first good look at this in the waning days of the presidential campaign. In the week leading up to the election, Karl Rove sold the campaign on a pet theory of his that went like this: Not having much of a mind of their own, undecided voters look to see who's out front in the waning days and cast their lots with the frontrunner. The press, too, was apt to give the leading candidate an added glow. It was a bandwagon strategy: Act like the winner and you'll become the winner, maybe even a big winner. That's just what the Bush campaign did for the first week of November 2000. Rove told the traveling press that the governor would win the popular vote by 6 or 7 percentage points and the electoral college even more comfortably, even though polls showed a dead heat. Bush coasted in and out of states like California and New Jersey, which he hadn't a prayer of winning, and kept a planeload of canny political reporters squinting and wondering whether Bush's chief strategists were magicians or morons.

Magicians they weren't. The stunt almost cost Bush the presidency. But before the press had much time to analyze how Rove had duped them (and himself) they were plunged into the struggle for Florida. Here, the same trick worked better. Immediately after the election, James Baker, the Bush family fixer, flew to Florida and announced that the election was over: George W. Bush had won. The only issue was how long Al Gore would try to steal it and how long that might delay the president-elect from assembling his staff. That gambit didn't work perfectly. Neither the voters nor the press seemed willing to accept that Bush was president-elect simply because he said he was. But by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the question at hand the Bush team defined the terms of the debate decisively to its advantage. They smacked the Democrats around, and by and large, the Democrats took it.

But nowhere did the White House play this game more splendidly than in the 2001 tax-cut fight. The confidence man's utter self-assurance can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like a savvy card player he can bluff his opponents out of the game without even holding a decent hand. When Bush assumed office, conventional wisdom held that the fractured election outcome and the new president's lack of a mandate required him to compromise on his campaign tax pledge. The administration simply said, no. And while we're at it, let's make it a little bigger. Democrats who had been preparing to haggle over decimal points weren't left with much place to go. Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, the administration insisted they were going to do it anyway, believing that if you project confidence and invincibility, others will come around. And to a remarkable extent that's just what happened.

In the Bushies' lexicon this is called "leadership." And to some extent it is. Getting people to follow you by force of personality, persuasion, and will is the essence of leadership. In fact, some of the qualities that make the president so great at scamming the policy process proved to be his greatest strengths in the first phases of the war. Bush was supremely confident and appropriately indifferent to complexities that might have distracted a more thoughtful, but less resolute, individual. But mostly, what the Bushies call "leadership" is just a confidence game. And over time, that kind of leadership will get its butt kicked by reality every time.

There's no better example than the Bush administration's bungling in the Middle East. The White House considered the Clintonites fools for expending political capital on intractable issues like the peace process, opting instead for a cold-eyed disengagement. It seemed shrewd--until the West Bank exploded and scrambled the administration's plans for invading Iraq, something the new team apparently hadn't figured on.

The Bush administration was full of plans to defy the laws of political gravity. They would grab the third rail of American politics--Social Security--and seniors wouldn't notice. They would expand their cut of the African-American vote by tossing a few faith-based grants to black ministers, without blacks noticing the anti-civil rights judges they were appointing. Most audaciously, they would overcome a solid consensus in favor of moderate environmental laws by setting the public's desire for a clean environment against its fears of a deteriorating economy. For three decades environmental laws had tightened like a ratchet. The argument that environmental protection comes up at the cost of economic growth had often stymied passage of new laws, but seldom had it helped overturn laws that had been in place for some time. (Republicans had tried this tactic during steeper economic downturns and gotten nowhere.) But somehow the Bushies would have the Midas touch. Even the California energy crisis (which would seem to be a negative for a White House so closely affiliated with the energy industry) was briefly enlisted as another boon for the administration's energy plan. It was all so ingenious and bold and over-the-top that it was possible, for a moment, to believe that it just might work. But in end, the plan collapsed under the weight of its own ridiculousness and no amount of bluster or message discipline or strategizing could change that. The new administration didn't really have a new plan for the old realities. They just ignored them for a while.

The Bush Bubble

Really, the fact that the Bush administration needed such tactics shouldn't have been a surprise. During the 2000 election, on issue after issue, Democratic positions outpolled Republican ones, just as they had in 1998. George W. Bush won the presidency in spite of that. But he still faced the difficult task of governing with an agenda that most Americans simply didn't support. With their trademark bravado, the Bush administration recast warmed-over or failed initiatives as sure bets. And for a while, the media, the public, and even some Democrats bought in. Today, however, its signature domestic accomplishment--the 2001 tax cut--seems destined to yield dividends of deficits and political fallout for years to come. When you look past the promises and the tough talk and the spin, you see an administration whose major policy initiatives are stalled or postponed to some unspecified point in the future. Until now, the Bush administration has been trading on the promise that all of these things would work out. But that leaves them in the position of a company that borrows against future profits (Enron, for instance) or an overextended investor who is buying stock on margin. When the bubble bursts, they will have a long way to fall.

Joshua Micah Marshall writes the Talking Points Memo.


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