SYNOPSIS: The Bush administration knows everything out political pandering but very little about making policy
The day after the Republican triumph in the midterm elections, a jubilant Trent Lott held a celebratory press conference. "Let's roll!" he exulted. (Good taste is not one of Mr. Lott's strong points.)
Six weeks later, we have to ask: Roll where (aside from Baghdad)? The storm that has broken over Mr. Lott's head is justified. But it may also reflect buyers' remorse: post-election polls suggest broad public unease about where Mr. Lott's party is taking us.
It's not even clear what the Bush administration wants to accomplish now that it has full control. Until now the administration has been all politics and no policy: John J. DiIulio tells us that there is a "complete lack of a policy apparatus," that all decisions are made by the political arm. For the past two years domestic policy has consisted of little more than checking off the boxes on a wish list drawn up circa 1999.
Meanwhile, as problems that weren't anticipated in 1999 have arisen, the administration has done as little as possible, as late as possible.
This has been true even in the areas where George W. Bush gets highest marks from voters. Remember that the administration repeatedly rejected calls for a homeland security agency, changing its mind only when Coleen Rowley went public with tales of intelligence failures. And a growing chorus of critics say that hardly anything real has been done to make the country safer.
Similarly, the administration tried to prevent any independent inquiry into what went wrong on Sept. 11, and how to avoid future attacks. Then, when he could no longer avoid an inquiry, Mr. Bush did his best to undermine that inquiry's credibility by choosing Henry Kissinger, of all people, to head it.
And then there's corporate reform. At first the administration opposed doing anything. Then, after WorldCom blew up, it agreed to a modest reform bill — only to undermine the bill's credibility both by trying to renege on promises to provide the Securities and Exchange Commission with adequate funds, and by pressuring Harvey Pitt not to choose a real reformer to head a crucial new panel.
Finally, there's economic policy. Fears that the economy would suffer a "jobless recovery" similar to that of the first Bush administration are no longer hypothetical: over the past year G.D.P. has grown, but employment has continued to shrink, and the risk that the U.S. will slide into a Japanese-style pattern of slow growth and deflation no longer seems remote. Again, the response has been to do as little as possible. As Congress failed to agree on an extension of unemployment benefits — which means that 800,000 families will be cut off on Dec. 28 — the administration simply stood on the sidelines. Last weekend, too late to help those families, Mr. Bush finally spoke up in favor of an extension, but failed to say whether he favored the merely cosmetic House plan or the more serious Senate plan; those who follow the issue know that this makes all the difference.
Will things improve now that there's a new economic team? John Snow seems to be Paul O'Neill without the charm. Stephen Friedman will probably be more vigorous than his predecessor; The Washington Post reports that one of Mr. Bush's frequent complaints about Larry Lindsey was that he didn't get enough physical exercise. But Mr. Friedman will have plenty of time to work out; it has been made clear that his duties as economic adviser don't include actually giving any economic advice.
Meanwhile, if the trial balloons floated by the administration are any guide to the forthcoming "stimulus" package, it will consist of more items from the checklist: making the tax cut permanent, reducing taxes on dividends. Nice stuff if you make more than $300,000 a year and have a net worth in the millions, but pretty much irrelevant to the actual problems of the economy — except the long-run deficit, which will get even worse. It seems that Karl Rove and his merry band of Mayberry Machiavellis are still calling the shots.
It may be that the bad few weeks the administration has just had were the result of random events. But I think the public is finally waking up to the fact that the people in the White House know a lot about gaining power, but not much about what to do with it.
Originally published in The New York Times, 12.20.02