How can the Bush administration be so disciplined and effective at politics and so undisciplined and ineffectual at governing? No White House in living memory has been as successful at squelching leaks and keeping cabinet members on message, reaching down into the bureaucracy to bend analyses in directions that support its goals, imposing its will on congressional leaders of the same party, and even making a political imprint on state legislatures. No recent president has been re-elected with controlling majorities in both chambers of Congress, or been as successful at repositioning the national debate around his ideological worldview.
Yet just as remarkable is this White House's incompetence in doing the work of governing the nation. Its stunning failures to act on predictions of a terrorist attack like September 11 or a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina; its botched intelligence over Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction; its failure to secure order after invading Iraq; its shameful treatment of prisoners of war; its fiscal profligacy; its bizarre Medicare drug benefit, from which the elderly are now fleeing; its incapacity to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- the list goes on. Not since the hapless administration of Warren G. Harding has there been one so stunningly inept.
The easy answer to the paradox is that George W. Bush cares about winning elections and putting his ideological stamp on the nation, but doesn't give a hoot about governing the place. But that's no explanation, because the two are so obviously connected. An administration can't impose a lasting stamp without being managed well, and a president's party can't keep winning elections if the public thinks it's composed of idiots.
The real answer is that the same discipline and organization that's made the White House into a hugely effective political machine has impaired its capacity to govern. Blocking data that's inconsistent with the desired ideological outcome may be effective politics in the short term. It keeps the media and the opposition party at bay. But it also prevents top policy-makers from ever getting the quality of information they need. Operatives in the CIA suspected Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction, and personnel at the State Department knew the plan to invade Iraq was seriously flawed. But such judgments were suppressed by a White House that made perfectly clear what it wanted -- and didn't want -- to hear. Career professionals at the CIA and the State Department are now wary of sharing what they know with appointed officials, as are scientists and experts all over the federal government.
Similarly, a White House whose cabinet officers all deliver identical, positive lines can be a formidable message machine. But this same discipline also discourages internal dissent, for the simple reason that in Washington, nothing stays completely private. The predictable result is that Bush officials have become yes-men incapable of sounding alarms. The price of dissent is high. Soon after Glenn Hubbard, then the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, warned that the cost of the Iraq War would be in the range of $200 billion -- almost exactly what it's cost so far -- he was fired. After Paul O'Neill, then the secretary of the Treasury, worried out loud that federal budget deficits didn't seem to matter any longer -- a prescient concern -- he was eased out, too. Can it be any wonder why this president doesn't seem to get it?
Political discipline is also honed when the White House staffs agencies with people loyal to the president, along with loyalists' friends. Joe Allbaugh worked as W.'s chief of staff when the latter was Texas governor, and as his 2000 campaign manager, so it seemed perfectly natural to put Allbaugh's college buddy Michael Brown in charge of FEMA -- even though “Brownie” had no previous experience in disaster management. FEMA's acting deputy director and its acting deputy chief of staff had no relevant experience, either; both had been advance men in the White House. Given this, no one should be surprised that FEMA so badly bungled Katrina. The administration is still crawling with cronies who know their politics but don't have a clue what they're supposed to manage.
Politics first, competence last -- that's the Bush administration all over. Karl Rove, Bush's brain and deputy chief of staff, is in charge of the political juggernaut that's substituted for effective governance. Presumably, he's now at work on a plan to burnish the image of Republicans as managers of the public's business so they don't get the hell beaten out of them in the midterms a year from now. But the harder Rove works at spinning what this White House has accomplished, the more likely it is that Americans will see that what it has accomplished is basically spin.
Robert B. Reich is cofounder of The American Prospect.