Media Matters

In Search of Liberal Castaways

Telling the pressies what they want to hear, the O’Neills and DiIulios become overnight heroes. But what if their critique of Bush were conservative?

By 1.14.04

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Journalist Ron Suskind is one-stop shopping for Bush administration castaways. But what if John DiIulio -- Suskind gave him a platform in Esquire magazine in 2002 to call the administration "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis" -- and Paul O'Neill had been shopping a conservative critique of Bush? Would Suskind have cracked open his notebook?

Not likely. Few events excite liberal journalists more than the inevitable defection of an "insider" from a Republican administration, provided that the defector is a liberal who is telling the media what it wants to hear. What interests the Suskinds are not conservative defectors but David Stockman clones.(Stockman, after ridiculing Ronald Reagan's economic policies in an interview with Atlantic Monthly, became the media's battering ram against Reaganomics.)

If the defector agrees with the liberal critique of the Republican administration, his dissent is profoundly important to the media. If he doesn't, well, it is not so important. Imagine if O'Neill's criticism of Bush was that he is a big spender. Or that he didn't cut taxes sharply enough. Or that his Medicare entitlement and education bills resembled Democratic bills. <60 Minutes's cameras don't roll for criticism of that nature.

Of course the effectiveness of the dissent requires that the dissenter appear a loyal Republican, so the media can say, "As Republican so-and-so says, this Republican administration is dumb/dishonest…" Hence journalist Joe Klein and others are trying to dress up this year's David Stockman as a traditional Republican deeply, and very thoughtfully, troubled by Bush's supposed radical policies. Klein, appearing on CNN on Monday night with a suddenly adrenaline-pumping Paula Zahn, saw vast significance in O'Neill's dissent, because O'Neill is "ground zero" of "traditional Republicanism."(On another network, a writer from Harper's was extolling O'Neill's thoughtful Taft Republicanism.) O'Neill is a traditional Republican? That's news to traditional Republicans. They considered him a highly unwise choice for Treasury secretary, given his bald opposition to tax cuts and badmouthing of supply-side economics long before he was nominated.

O'Neill came into the administration disagreeing with it. That he left in the same state is hardly news. What's surprising is that Republican administrations never seem to learn the lesson: if you bring liberals, with a D. or R. after their names, into your administration, they will burn you. And even if they don't leave the administration in a high-profile pout, they will leak to the press like crazy.(Which of course is an indisputable good in the media's mind: if a liberal Republican leaks to the press, that's public spirited; but if a Republican leaks, say, that Joseph Wilson's wife is manipulating her position at the CIA, that's a malicious abuse of power.)

O'Neill's criticism of Bush amounts to saying that Bush didn't agree with him. So what? Had Bush agreed with O'Neill, would that then mean he is a very engaged president? Suskind's interviews with O'Neill sound just like his interviews with DiIulio (who at least had the decency to acknowledge that talking to Suskind was a graceless mistake on his part.)

A Democrat and Brookings fellow who voted for Al Gore, DiIulio had said to Suskind that the Bush administration was too political -- "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis" -- and not political enough -- he complained that it didn't work with "centrist Senate Democrats" and that Bush staffers had pushed "policy proposals as far right as possible" and "winked at the most far-right House Republicans." All the criticism basically meant was that Bush hadn't adopted DiIulio's centrist Democratic mindset and that the Bush White House didn't function like the Brookings Institution.

And then there were DiIulio's nostalgic musings on the Clinton administration. Clinton, he told Suskind, was a "leader with a genuine interest in the policy process who encouraged information-rich decision-making." He was the "policy-wonk-in-chief." His staff "teemed with knowledgeable people interested in making government work."

Agree with O'Neill and DiIulio, and you are an engaged policy wonk. Disagree with them and you are an out-of-touch ideologue.

DiIulio's comments to Suskind were unintentionally reassuring. He said that the "Mayberry Machiavellis" exist in part to "keep Bush '43' from behaving like Bush '41' and moving too far to the center or inching at all center-left."

Sounds good.

DiIulio said that their "fiction, supported by zero empirical electoral evidence studies, is that '41' lost in '92" because he alienated his right-wing base. "There are not ten House districts in America where either the libertarian litany or the right-wing religious policy creed would draw majority popular approval, and, most studies suggest, Bush '43' could have done better versus Gore had he stayed more centrist, but, anyway, the fiction is enshrined as fact," said DiIulio.

'41' did lose because he alienated his right-wing base. Didn't O'Neill and DiIulio know that they were working not for the father but for the son?

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.