Nothing pleases liberal journalists more than the inevitable defection of an “insider” from a conservative administration. Remember David Stockman? After running Ronald Reagan’s economic policies down in an interview with Atlantic Monthly, he became the liberals’ battering ram against Reaganomics.
This year’s David Stockman award goes to John DiIulio, the former head of George Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. His interview with Esquire magazine gives liberals a handy weapon against George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” We can now expect to hear the Eleanor Clifts of the press begin their attacks, “As John DiIulio says …”
But how revealing are his remarks? A Democrat who voted for Al Gore, DiIulio essentially criticizes the Bush administration for not adopting his centrist Democratic mindset. He is upset that the Bush White House doesn’t operate like the Brookings Institution.
His letter to Esquire reporter Ron Suskind isn’t very persuasive. He at once criticizes the Bush administration for being too political — “the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis” — and then criticizes it for not being more political. He complains that it didn’t work with “centrist Senate Democrats” on the faith-based initiatives bill, and that Bush staffers pushed “policy proposals as far right as possible” and “winked at the most far-right House Republicans.”
So, according to DiIulio, these “Mayberry Machiavellis” didn’t compromise enough. One might think that phrase better fits the Clinton administration. But DiIulio waxes nostalgic about the Clinton administration. Clinton, he says, 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.”
For DiIulio, though he doesn’t state it, thinking within Big-Government assumptions is “policy,” while thinking outside those assumptions is mere ideology. Hence Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George Bush can never be policy wonks because they don’t agree with Big-Government policy. But what is so disturbing about that?
What DiIulio views as ipso facto evidence of bad government — “the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy” — is actually evidence of good government. DiIulio’s implicit definition of domestic accomplishment is the creation of new federal programs or the revision of old federal programs that should never have been created in the first place. A lack of “domestic accomplishments” simply means a president isn’t expanding the size of the federal government. We can only hope that Bush’s “thin record on domestic policy,” as DiIulio puts it, remains that way. Reducing the size of the federal government is the only real domestic accomplishment left to presidents conscious of its original constitutional design.
But to “policy intellectuals,” philosophy is not policy. A policy of removing bad policies just doesn’t count. Only continuing them merits a president their approval.
Ron Suskind quotes an anonymous senior White House official as saying, “The view of many people [in the White House] is that the best government can do is simply do no harm, that it never is an agent for positive change. If that’s your position, why bother to understand what programs actually do?”
That’s the view inside the White House? Great. Such a cautious view of the federal government suggests Bush staffers are far wiser than the policy wonks who scoff at them. Bush staffers don’t understand what federal programs do? No, it sounds like they understand all too well what those programs do. If they see the need to restrain the federal government, it is because they have seen the failures of those programs.
DiIulio’s comments to Esquire are inadvertently heartening. In his letter to Suskind, he suggests 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.” He writes that their “fiction, supported by zero empirical electoral evidence studies, is that ’41’ lost in ’92” because he abandoned 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.”
The Mayberry Machiavellis don’t sound too bad. Their “fictions” should prove more solid than the “facts” of “policy intellectuals.”
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