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Conservatives Restive About Bush Policies: Fresh Initiatives Sought on Iraq, Domestic Issues

After three years of sweeping actions in both foreign and domestic affairs, the Bush administration is facing complaints from the conservative intelligentsia that it has lost its ability to produce fresh policies.

The centerpiece of President Bush’s foreign policy — the effort to transform Iraq into a peaceful democracy — has been undermined by a deadly insurrection and broadcast photos of brutality by U.S. prison guards. On the domestic side, conservatives and former administration officials say the White House policy apparatus is moribund, with policies driven by political expediency or ideological pressure rather than by facts and expertise.

Conservatives have become unusually restive. Last Tuesday, columnist George F. Will sharply criticized the administration’s Iraq policy, writing: “This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts.” Two days earlier, Robert Kagan, a neoconservative supporter of the Iraq war, wrote: “All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do in Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now.”

The complaints about Bush’s Iraq policy are relatively new, but they are in some ways similar to long-standing criticism about Bush’s domestic policies. In a book released earlier this year, former Bush Treasury secretary Paul H. O’Neill described Bush as “a blind man in a room full of deaf people” and said policymakers put politics before sound policy judgments.

Echoing a criticism leveled by former Bush aide John J. DiIulio Jr., who famously described “Mayberry Machiavellis” running the White House, O’Neill said “the biggest difference” between his time in government in the 1970s and in the Bush administration “is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis, and Karl [Rove], Dick [Cheney], [Bush communications strategist] Karen [Hughes] and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics.”

Michael Franc, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, said the criticism by O’Neill, Will and Kagan has a common thread: a concern that the administration is “using an old playbook” and not coming up with bold enough ideas, whether the subject is entitlement reform or pacifying Iraq. Conservative intellectuals “are saying, ‘Don’t do things half way,’ ” he said.

“It’s the exhaustion of power,” said a veteran of conservative think tanks who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Ideology has confronted reality, and ideology has bent. On the domestic side, it has bent in terms of the expansion of the government embodied in the Medicare prescription-drug law. On the foreign policy side, it has bent because of what has transpired in the last few weeks in Fallujah.”

A Bush spokesman quarreled with that notion, saying there has been no let-up in Bush’s policymaking. “We are marching ahead,” said the spokesman, Trent Duffy, pointing to Bush’s plans for community-college-based job training, space exploration and modernizing health records. “He’s continuing to push the policies that have made the country better and stronger.”

Part of the current perception of policy fatigue in the White House is a reflection of the political calendar: With a presidential election approaching, there is little possibility that the closely split Congress will enact serious legislation this year regardless of what the White House proposes. “It’s a combination of how very challenging it is to move anything in the Senate these days, and it is an election year,” said one former Bush aide, who like some of the conservatives interviewed for this article declined to be identified to avoid offending the White House.

But conservative policy experts and a number of former Bush administration officials say there are more systemic reasons for the policy sclerosis. For three years, the president pushed policies conceived during his 2000 campaign for the White House, but with most of those ideas either enacted or stalled, policymaking has run out of steam, they said.

Bush has also discouraged the sort of free-wheeling policy debates that characterized previous administrations, and he relies on a top-down management style that has little use for “wonks” in the federal bureaucracy. At the same time, many of the top domestic policy experts in the Bush White House have moved on to other jobs; in many cases they have been replaced by subordinates with much less experience in governing.

Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist with the National Center for Policy Analysis, said policy ideas typically bubble up from experts deep inside federal agencies, who put together working groups, draft white papers, sell their wares in the marketplace of ideas and hope White House officials act on their suggestions. In this case, ideas are hatched in the White House, for political or ideological reasons, then are thrust on the bureaucracy, “not for analysis, but for sale,” Bartlett said.

The result is a White House that has become unimaginative with domestic policy and, in foreign policy, has struggled to develop new policies to adapt to changing circumstances in Iraq, according to several conservatives.

“In Iraq, you don’t see the thinking, ‘Things have not happened as we had planned. What do we do now?’ ” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, who last week organized a Cato forum entitled “The Triumph of the Hacks?”

Richard W. Rahn, a prominent Republican economist, excoriated the administration’s telecommunications, antitrust and international economic policies in a Washington Times column April 30 along similar lines. “From the beginning of the Bush administration, sympathetic, experienced economists have warned its officials about the need to avoid some obvious mistakes,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, these warnings have gone unheeded.”

In an interview, Rahn said he has grown concerned over what he sees as “a lack of vision and policy consistency” in the Bush administration. “I mean, we knew where [President Ronald] Reagan was heading; at times there were deviations from the path, but we knew what it was all about,” he said. In contrast, he said, now “there doesn’t seem to be a clear policy vision.”

Some attribute the policy lethargy to personnel changes, particularly on the domestic side. For example, three veterans of previous White Houses with lengthy experience in Washington have left their policymaking roles; their successors, though capable, have significantly less policymaking experience.

Joshua B. Bolten, the deputy chief of staff for policy, has been replaced by Harriet Miers, a Texas lawyer and former chairman of the Texas Lottery Commission. Jay Lefkowitz, director of the Domestic Policy Council, has been replaced by Kristen Silverberg, who was a young aide to Bolten. And Lawrence B. Lindsey was replaced as top economic adviser by investment banker Stephen Friedman.

Likewise, John Bridgeland, a former director of the Domestic Policy Council, was replaced as director of Bush’s USA Freedom Corps initiative by Desiree Sayle, the former director of correspondence in the White House. And public-policy professor DiIulio was replaced as chief of Bush’s “faith-based” initiative by Jim Towey, who had ties to the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Leading experts in welfare and health policy have left the White House and been replaced by less experienced hands.

“It would be fair to say the policy shop is less policy-oriented in its apparatus and more administratively managed,” said a Republican with close ties to the White House.

In interviews, former officials of the current and three previous administrations described Bush’s domestic policy team as unusually green — particularly compared with Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove. At the Cato forum last week, former Bush speechwriter David Frum said Rove is “the top hack and the top wonk” in the White House.

“I don’t think he should be the most important wonk in the White House,” said Bruce Reed, former domestic policy chief to Bill Clinton and author of an article about how policy “wonks” had been bested by political “hacks” in the current White House. “Every White House takes on the enthusiasms and the interests of the president, and most of the time this president seems to take more joy in the politics than in the policy.”

Defenders of the Bush policymaking apparatus agree that the volume of policymaking has diminished significantly from 2001 and 2002, when the White House was fighting for passage of policies developed during the presidential campaign, such as tax cuts and education accountability. But they say the cause is outside the administration.

Frum said much of the policy energy has been channeled into fighting terrorism at home and abroad because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “On the most critical issue of our time, they have been bold, creative, and in some cases, they have shocked the intelligentsia with their assertiveness,” he said.

Whatever the cause, conservatives say the remedy to policy malaise won’t come until the election. Conservative strategist Jeffrey Bell said the big items on the policy agenda — such as an overhaul of Social Security — are necessarily on hold as Bush fights for reelection. “He’s having to defend the forward motion he’s already had,” Bell said. “Reagan in ’84 was the same way. People who thought Reagan’s creative period was going to end after ’83 were wrong. I think Bush will be the same way.”

© 2004 The Washington Post Company