A former White House official said yesterday that President Bush has failed to deliver on his promise to help religious groups serve the poor, the homeless and drug addicts because the administration lacks a genuine commitment to its "compassionate conservative" agenda.
David Kuo, who was deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for much of Bush's first term, said in published remarks that the White House reaped political benefits from the president's promise to help religious organizations win taxpayer funding to care for "the least, the last and the lost" in the United States. But he wrote: "There was minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda."
Analyzing Bush's failure to secure $8 billion in promised funding for the faith-based initiative during his first term, Kuo said there was "snoring indifference" among Republicans and "knee-jerk opposition" among Democrats in Congress.
"Capitol Hill gridlock could have been smashed by minimal West Wing effort," Kuo wrote on Beliefnet.com, a Web site on religion. "No administration since [Lyndon B. Johnson's] has had a more successful legislative record than this one. From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the 'poor people stuff.' "
Kuo's remarks were a rare breach of discipline for an administration that places a high premium on unity among current and former officials, and they mark the second time a former high-ranking official has criticized Bush's approach to the faith-based issue.
In August 2001, John J. DiIulio Jr., then-director of the faith-based office, became the first top Bush adviser to quit, after seven months on the job. In an interview with Esquire magazine a year later, DiIulio said the Bush White House was obsessed with the politics of the faith-based initiative but dismissive of the policy itself, and he slammed White House advisers as "Mayberry Machiavellis."
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said yesterday that Kuo is wrong about the president's commitment.
"The faith-based and community initiative has been a top priority for President Bush since the beginning of his first term and continues to be a top priority," Duffy said. "The president has mentioned the initiative in every State of the Union and fought for full funding."
In his first major policy speech as a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush proposed an $8 billion program to promote religious charities and other community groups. The idea quickly became the centerpiece of his call for compassionate conservatism. But it met stiff resistance in Congress, where Democrats said it threatened the separation of church and state, while Republicans showed little enthusiasm for new welfare-related spending.
After Congress balked at allowing religious groups to receive government funding and still hire, fire and promote employees on the basis of their faith, Bush issued executive orders to make it easier for religious groups to compete for government grants to run homeless shelters, counseling centers for teenagers and a wide range of other social programs.
"I think some good progress has been made, especially administratively," said John Bridgeland, White House director of domestic policy during Bush's first term. He added that Bush's decision to give chief speechwriter Michael J. Gerson responsibility for expanding the initiative should give the effort a lift in the second term.
In his Beliefnet column, Kuo said it was "a dream come true for me" when Bush promised in 2000 that in his first year in office he would provide $6 billion in tax incentives for private charitable giving, $1.7 billion for groups that care for the poor and $200 million for a Compassion Capital Fund to assist local faith-based organizations.
"Sadly, four years later these promises remain unfulfilled in spirit and in fact," he wrote.
In June 2001, the promised tax incentives were stripped at the last minute from the $1.6 trillion tax cut legislation "to make room for the estate-tax repeal that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy," Kuo said. The Compassion Capital Fund has received a cumulative total of $100 million in the past four years, and new programs for children of prisoners, at-risk youth and prisoners reentering society have received a little more than $500 million over four years, he said.
"Unfortunately, sometimes even the grandly-announced 'new' programs aren't what they appear," Kuo wrote, citing as an example the three-year $150 million "gang prevention" effort Bush announced in this year's State of the Union address. In reality, Kuo said, that money is being taken out of the "already meager" $100 million request for the Compassion Capital Fund.
Kuo, 36, served as a special assistant to the president for 2 1/2 years and was deputy head of the faith-based office from February 2002 to December 2003. Before joining the White House, he worked for several prominent conservatives, including John D. Ashcroft and William J. Bennett. But before that, he had been a campaign volunteer for former representative Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) and an intern for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"I have always sought to try and figure out what's the best way for government to care for the poor. I went to the left and to the right, and I've ended up pretty much in the center," he said in a telephone interview yesterday.
In the Beliefnet column, Kuo said that he continues to have "deep respect, appreciation and affection for the president." Kuo added: "No one who knows him even a tiny bit doubts the sincerity and compassion of his heart."
Asked whether that meant he believes that Bush was sincere about the faith-based initiative but other White House officials were not, Kuo said he would "let the column speak for itself."
"The point of the column is that the poor need to be dealt with by everybody. There was phenomenal promise in the original vision for compassionate conservatism . . . and to try to pin blame on any one institution, one person, one body, one policy, is wrong," he said. "It's not about the White House, it's not about the Congress, it's not about interest groups. It's about everybody."