A Love of Power Helped End a Conservative Revolution

By Matt Latimer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

In the summer of 2008, the White House political office sent a detailed memo to the speechwriters urging us to use an event at Monticello to declare President Bush the heir to Thomas Jefferson. The Bush record, we were told, closely paralleled the Founding Father's achievements: Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence; Bush was the liberator of Iraq. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia; Bush gave us the No Child Left Behind Act. It was an odd recommendation given that Bush's only instruction had been to keep the remarks short, because it would be hot outside. But this was the kind of thinking the administration was left with after "The Rove-o-lution."

A few months ago, it seemed as though the GOP had been decimated by an ascendant President Obama. It appears, for the moment, that Republicans have a new opening. And critical to Republicans' efforts to reintroduce themselves to the American people is a clear discussion of what became of the conservative movement over the past eight years.

It is a story not of grand strategy or evil genius but of human foolishness and the love of power.

I joined the Bush administration in the 2004 just as things were turning against the president. The White House was following the "51 percent strategy" for governing -- cobbling together enough support to eke out a win. Republican ideology centered on numbers and percentages instead of the values and ideas that had brought them to power. Those who didn't join the coveted 51 percent were shunned or ignored. Eventually this group included conservative and moderate Republicans who were not on board with the party line du jour. Bush indicated that Republicans opposed to his immigration plan, for example, lacked the courage to do what was right for their country.

Inside the White House, Bush officials were known to undermine their vice president through media leaks while counseling him on behalf of the president to remain silent. (Dick Cheney isn't silent anymore -- to some former Bush officials' consternation.) And functionaries with thin résumés turned Cabinet departments and agencies into personal fiefdoms.

Every administration politicizes hiring to a degree, but some in the Bush administration went beyond the pale. Much is known about the political firings of U.S. attorneys and the party-line enforcers who removed or intimidated qualified personnel at the Justice Department. Less well known is what happened outside Justice.

For nearly three years at the Defense Department, I saw young, inexperienced political operatives enjoy nearly unrestrained power. Like schoolyard bullies who picked on people because they could, these operatives pursued personal vendettas, blocked hirings, delayed promotions and pressured high-ranking officials.

Backed by the White House political shop, some operatives refused to hire experienced communicators to help the president and the defense secretary work effectively on Afghanistan and Iraq. They insisted on hiring friends or mediocre candidates from a White House-approved list.

One loyal conservative with sterling credentials was refused even an interview because a personnel official was fighting with the conservative senator the candidate worked for. Another credentialed applicant was rejected for allegedly failing to vote in 2004. When it was proved that she had voted, the personnel office raised another objection. There were also reports that the Pentagon personnel system raised frivolous political objections to hiring experts on biological and chemical weapons.

And these are just things I knew about.

Frustrated by his inability to staff his own department, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to the White House in 2005 to sort out the situation. He met a bespectacled wall of resistance in Karl Rove. When Rumsfeld prepared to go higher, top Rove aides -- including a future U.S. attorney -- tried to intimidate Pentagon officials who were encouraging Rumsfeld's effort. Even Rumsfeld's chief of staff asked me to help persuade the secretary to stop pushing personnel issues.

In a spring 2005 memo, Rove was alerted to his lieutenants' activities at the Pentagon and warned that the White House culture could "lead to tragedy." This was the root of the U.S. attorneys controversy.

All this happened, I am convinced, not out of criminal intent but something far more mundane: the temptations of unchecked power. After the 2004 election, Rove was given a far-reaching portfolio -- overseeing political affairs, policy and personnel. His operation went on a power trip -- and was ineffective at advancing conservative ideals. After Rove took over policy chores, the administration passed no significant conservative legislation through a Republican Congress. Within 24 months the GOP lost the House, the Senate, a majority of governorships and the presidency. After Rove's feuds with many of his White House colleagues, his departure less than a year after the 2006 midterms seemed more welcome, and less voluntary, than commonly assumed at the time.

The crumbling of the conservative movement, though, is not merely a story of past events to be dissected. Thousands marched in Washington last weekend to protest the Obama administration's expansion of the role of the federal government. This is an important debate. But the message on such serious issues is undercut when conservatives are lumped together with those bashing Obama as a secret Muslim and questioning his citizenship. Indeed, one of the organizers of the "birther" movement is a former personnel vetter at the Pentagon.

I came to Washington expecting to help carry forward what I thought would be a new Reagan Revolution. I never expected to see a movement I believed in fall victim to that most predictable of human failings: the intoxication of power.

Conservatives must move beyond maneuverings and machinations, which ultimately have gotten us nowhere. No one would deny Karl Rove his place in Republican political history. But Republicans need to lead with the power of their ideas, not slim percentages or forced consensus. Strong argument and debate are the only way to a long-term governing majority.

Matt Latimer was deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush and senior speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His book "Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor," is to be released Tuesday.

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