WASHINGTON — “This is a very complex case, and I can just tell you outside Washington many people don’t understand it.” David Gergen, veteran of four presidential administrations, could have been discussing any number of hot political issues. Though he meant to address the frenzy around Karl Rove’s involvement in the alleged outing of Valerie Plame, erstwhile covert CIA agent, Gergen captured the orotundish quality of discussion at yesterday’s American Enterprise Institute panel — before a turnaway crowd — “How Is Bush Governing in His Second Term?”
Gergen and his fellow Washington Wise Men co-panelists said many Wise Things about President George W. Bush’s performance over the last six months. Truly, AEI gathered knowledgeable professionals in their respective areas: Norman J. Ornstein, AEI fellow and Roll Call columnist; David Sanger, New York Times White House correspondent; Gergen, talking head extraordinaire; and Dan Balz, Washington Post national correspondent.
Though gentlemen and scholars, they’re illustrative of the perils of Beltway conventional wisdom (so pervasive that ABC News’s The Note can merely write “The Chattering Class CW” without explanation). Sparks? Insightful nuggets? Look elsewhere. There was little offered that a casual reader couldn’t find on the front pages of Times or the Post: the President’s domestic agenda is flailing, his numbers are down, democracy’s the “theme” of the second term, Iraq is an enormous foreign policy liability, the Supreme Court nomination is potentially explosive, and how ’bout that Karl Rove.
This was one of many regular meetings of Washington Wise Men. (The Note coins them the “Gang of 500,” roughly estimating the number of significant Beltway political pros.) They convene many times a week — at dinners, lunches, newsrooms, television studios, and cocktail parties — to handicap the political horse race.
As such, Washington Wise Men only rarely speak in terms like “should,” “right,” and “wrong.” Ideas are abandoned for detached analyses of process and political maneuvering. How will Bush fare politically? How does his second term stack up to other reelected presidents? Is the Karl Rove-Valerie Plame scandal as significant as Iran-Contra or Monica Lewinsky?
Ornstein, Balz, Gergen, and Sanger are observers whose differences were mostly limited to their speculations. Norm Ornstein thinks Bush would have an easier go of it with two Supreme Court vacancies instead of one. By nominating both a conservative and a moderate, he can satisfy his base and broaden the Republican coalition. David Gergen thinks Bush certainly wins with one vacancy, appointing a conservative and pleasing the base. If two, one will “clearly be a conservative nutcase” and the second, if a moderate, will “dampen the enthusiasm of the base.” If another conservative is nominated, the more likely scenario, the Democrats “go to war” and “we’re going to have a real whoop-de-do.” Cocktail party prognosticating probably sounds more intelligent at cocktail parties.
This isn’t to say they’re always detached. Just as most mainstream journalist types are partisans in the Valerie Plame case (for a fine recap, see John Podhoretz’s New York Post article), this crew couldn’t resist opining on Judith Miller being jailed for contempt. Sanger admitted as much in the nearly 30-minute discussion of the case, “It’s a hard subject to be objective about while Judy Miller sits in jail for an article she didn’t write.” Ornstein was adamant that “there are limits” to the use of anonymous sources. David Gergen broke composure to harrumph, “It’s an outrage that Judith Miller is in jail. She never wrote a story…. [Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald] threw this poor woman in jail because he can’t wrap up his damn case.”
In refusing to testify, Sanger continued, Miller is like “many people over the years from Rosa Parks on, and many years before that.” Really? Well, the Rosa Parks comparison is “a stretch,” Sanger later conceded, “in that Rosa Parks was standing up for a civil rights issue and all that.”
In nearly half an hour, the Washington Wise Men couldn’t uncover the most interesting facts of the Plame-Joe Wilson-Karl Rove case. For example, that Joe Wilson was lying all along. Or that Plame was hardly undercover in the first place. Once off the stage of Beltway group think, panelists drifted toward the obvious. As they moved toward the door, Gergen and Sanger agreed that “everyone” knew Joe Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. Sanger confirmed this as “common knowledge” to TAS. Perhaps these facts aren’t yet Conventional Wisdom.
Sometimes Conventional Wisdom reveals truth in spite of itself. While they varied in the particulars, the panelists and AEI moderator John C. Fortier largely agreed that Bush’s second term is adrift. Even Norman Ornstein, who of the bunch is the most conservative, said Bush suffers from hubris and a lack of new ideas. Yet in their discussion of the second term and the Supreme Court nominations, many second term initiatives earned passing mentions: growing the Republican Party, a stronger State Department, Social Security reform, tax reform, the bankruptcy bill, an energy bill, a highway bill, the battle over the judiciary, and even Iraq’s remarkable elections earlier this year.
These aren’t all principled successes, but political progress all the same. Is Bush’s conservative coalition falling apart? The press may seize upon Republican defections in the House over the stem cell bill, but Bush still wields the veto and the Senate is moving toward a more ethically palatable compromise.
The duck isn’t lame yet. Maybe The Note can send out the memo to the Gang of 500, which can discuss it amongst themselves.