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Stop the Campaigning

Fred Jones

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Stop the Campaigning

The Bush White House Is in Trouble Because of Its Disdain for Governing

By Lewis L. Gould


There is an old theatrical adage that tragedy is easy, comedy is hard. For politicians, that could be reformulated as: Campaigning is easy, governing is hard. The Bush administration, long disdainful of governance as an exercise for wimps and Democrats, now finds its political and legal troubles mounting while its time-tested campaign mode falters. The divide between campaigning and governing has existed for all administrations, of course, and was particularly and painfully evident during the darker moments of Bill Clinton's second term. But under the rule of George W. Bush and his outriders -- Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Andrew Card -- the disconnect between the pleasures of campaigning and the imperatives of governing has become acute.

Continuous campaigning, dating back to Richard Nixon and perfected in succeeding decades, has evolved into the approach of choice. Stage-managed events, orchestrated by masters of spin, provide the appearance of a chief executive in charge of the nation's destiny. Some presidents -- Ronald Reagan, Clinton and the younger Bush -- were or are masters of the art. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were less adept on the hustings and more at home with policies, diplomacy and personnel choices. Their performances varied but their impulse was toward making the government run, not creating the illusion of an executive in perpetual motion.

The Bush team brought its campaign skills from the 2000 presidential contest into the White House and never stopped its reliance on these methods. Along with that style went the assumptions rooted in the Republican DNA of the president and those around him: The Democratic Party is not a worthy partner in the political process; repealing key elements of the New Deal is but a prelude to overturning the accomplishments of the Progressive Era; and negotiations with a partisan opponent are not opportunities to be embraced but traps to be avoided.

The other part of the recipe for Bush's success was an unstated but evident identification of the president himself with the nation at large. Accompanied by a willing array of incense swingers in the White House, Bush attained (particularly in the minds of his base) a status that embraced both the imperial and in some cases the quasi-deified. Why then become involved in the details of running a government from the Oval Office? Appoint the right Republicans to key posts, and the federal government would run itself while providing an unending source of patronage for supporters, contracts for friendly businesses and the sinews of perpetual political dominance. It seemed to cross no one's mind that the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- a post where dealing with extraordinary crises is all in a day's work -- might need to be super-competent rather than just a superintendent.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq insulated the president from questioning whether his government was operating effectively. In the first term, criticism and contrary advice could be (and often was) labeled as mere partisan sniping, as happened with such figures as former National Security Council counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and, more notably, former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

During a campaign, attacking the opponent's motives is part of the cut and thrust of politics, and so the substance of charges can be finessed with the claim that their author had worked for the opposition or had some other hidden agenda. In the case of Wilson, the attack on him fit with the principle of rapid retaliation so characteristic of a campaign. Less thought was apparently devoted to whether revealing the identity of his wife, a CIA employee, served the interests of wise and prudent governance. Whatever the outcome of the charges filed Friday against Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the apparent blurring of the line between campaigning and governing is evident in the indictment returned by the federal grand jury.

Meanwhile, many in the administration -- and in the media -- simply turned their minds away from engaging a dissent from a Bush policy on its merits if the critic wasn't a Republican. That a critic might be a Democrat and correct -- or a Republican outsider offering a useful counterpoint -- seemed to be a contradiction in terms for people around Bush.

This strategy worked well during the first term and culminated in a larger margin of victory last November. Once the president was no longer a candidate for office, he turned to the issue of a mandate for change with his seemingly abundant political capital. Remaking the Social Security system loomed as the big domestic goal of the second term. Hammering out an actual proposal ("Negotiating with ourselves" in the president's parlance) was not to the taste of inveterate campaigners. Campaign first, program last seemed the slogan to be followed. So the president made numerous speeches before captive audiences touting the virtues of change in Social Security as a platonic ideal, but refused to provide a specific plan. Since popular enthusiasm for an alteration in retirement policy failed to materialize, the president was left with a campaign in search of a governing objective.

Hurricane Katrina, and the political and atmospheric storms that followed, underscored the deficiencies of continuous campaigning as a response to real-life crises. Getting assistance to storm victims is a matter of logistics, competent administrators and coordinated planning. A presidential visit to express sympathy for those who have lost homes, jobs and loved ones is a one-day nostrum that leaves the basic situation unchanged, no matter how many times the chief executive jets in with concern. When the government does not work, it does not matter how many officials are told they have done "a heck of a job." Citizens see for themselves that their government is absent and help is not on the way.

The Bush presidency will end in three years, but the larger problems revealed by his faltering second term will remain to plague the nation. There is as yet no meaningful evidence that the president, Congress and the media are prepared to abandon their infatuation with continuous campaigning as an alternative to actual operation of the federal government. Imagine an occupant of the White House who thought about issues, anticipated crises and sacked officials who didn't measure up to the demands of an urgent problem. If that worthy person failed to fly Air Force One around the country and feed the appetite of the media for attractive visual moments, there would soon be cries that the president was out of touch, aloof and in political danger.

But government, while it has elements of a show and entertainment, is not at bottom about pleasing today's cable TV audiences. The president needs to take the long view about the national interest beyond the demands of a political campaign or the continuous electioneering so common to the modern White House. The dilemma is that paying attention to those considerations guarantees a short tenure in office. George W. Bush may have a presidency now that is moving from embattled to dysfunctional. The problems that his administration represents go deeper than the perils of a special prosecutor, a restive political base or an invigorated opposition. If in 2008 the United States simply chooses a practitioner of continuous campaigning who shares Bush's disdain for governing, the process will repeat itself and another chief executive will encounter problems retaining the trust and confidence of the electorate.

Somehow, the political system needs to restore governing to its proper place in the conduct of American government. Whether this means more one-term presidencies, a more rigorous screening process for national candidates, a more involved citizenry and a more aggressive press -- or at least a press less influenced by artifice -- cannot be discerned at this moment of potential disaster for the Bush administration.

But it's important to realize that the underlying issues are systemic, not to be cured by different incumbents of either party. George W. Bush's current troubles offer perhaps a final chance to mature as a nation and to understand we must ask more of our leaders than a television screen filled with reassuring images while the hard work of actual governing lapses into disuse and decay.

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what exactly are you trying to achieve with that thread? a circle jerk for leftys?

Thats just pure smear, theres no way to even pull any kind of productive conversation from that.

Now why does it not surprise me that the first response to this post is "I don't get it. It must be a liberal smear."?

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As to the article,

I do agree that politics seems to have come to the point where results, even facts, are secondary to spin and political tactics.

Although, I also would point out that (IMO) the authors' disdain for, say, Bush's speaches to the residents of New Orleans isn't my opinion. To me, inspiration is simply a synonym for leadership, and it's part of the President's job.

I disagree with almost every policy that came out of the Kennedy administration. (I think he gets credit for a lot of civil rights stuff that Johnson actually had to do the grunt work for.) But I consider him to be, perhaps, the greatest President of the century, because of the tone he set for the country. He created the space program simply by making a speach. (Johnson and Nixon actually had to deliver on his goal. But if he hadn't set the goal, then it wouldn't have been done.)

I think a better example of what the author calls the preference for campaigning over gonerning is the War in Iraq. As near as I can tell, this administration had a goal (War in Iraq), and they seemed to feel that all they needed was a plan for how to sell it. Once the war started, then they didn't need to worry beyond that point, because well, we'd be committed. So we really didn't need to worry beyond that point. We'll "Keep looking" for WMDs for a month, then quit. We'll "keep looking" for Ossamma for another few months, then announce that he wasn't important, anyway. We'll try to apoint one puppet to run the country. When it fails we'll appoint a different puppet. We'll get a Constitution, and it doesn't really matter what it says or if some groups are violently opposed to it, as long as we can say it's good.

(And I also agree with the author. This isn't a Bush thing. This is the way our government is going, for the same reason that Congress takes money under the table for favors, and hands out pork: This is the kind of Government that the people want. Congress is full of crooks because we want them.)

(It's also the same reason that when you have a question about your computer, you have to sit on hold for a half hour before somebody from India will tell you that sonce your computer is one year and two weeks old, he can't tell you what that error message means unless you pay him $39.)

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(And I also agree with the author. This isn't a Bush thing. This is the way our government is going, for the same reason that Congress takes money under the table for favors, and hands out pork: This is the kind of Government that the people want. Congress is full of crooks because we want them.)

after I read your post, I went and finished the article. I admit I didnt finish the article cause it came across as a smear to me. Your right the conclusion of the author is insightfull. Its the nature of the combative gotcha political game, its nothing new to our democracy but every so often it gets more venomous. I guess I fell victim to that nature and prejudged the article by how it started, figuring it was just more of the same.

People get fed up with it after awhile and the parties change the way they do business. Critical mass is comming I hope, the only wrinkle is will the left break first. The reason I say that is the left has a large umbrella of causes so they are more likely to cross someones fence, so they are the barometer of how extreme the two parties can go. The further left the left goes, the further right the right goes. When we are locked in a battle of extremes I think we get the power players this article described.

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