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

Roundup: Historians' Take

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....
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