A typographical error altered the meaning of a sentence in an Oct. 30 Outlook article on the Bush administration's governing style. The sentence should have read: "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." As published, the word "unchanged" appeared as "changed." (Published 10/31/2005)
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 changed, 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.
Author's e-mail: email@example.com
Lewis Gould is the author of books on the presidency, politics and Congress. His latest, "The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate" (Basic Books), will be published next week.