This morning I really did plan to write about something other than Dick the Dick and his little accident, but Ronald Brownstein and Peter Wallsten have an article in today’s Los Angeles Times that make some excellent observations about what The Incident says about the Bush Administration’s governing “style.”
Observation #1: They are utterly flummoxed by unexpected events that weren’t part of The Plan.
Bush and his White House often seem to struggle when pressed to react to unexpected events, a difficulty highlighted Wednesday by the continuing furor over Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident and a congressional committee’s sharply critical report about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
“There are maybe three or four things [Bush] really cares about, and on those things he will be clear, decisive and maybe even ruthless,” said Donald F. Kettl, an expert on government administration at the University of Pennsylvania.
But Bush and his aides “are not very good at … quick reaction, on-the-fly decision-making,” Kettl said. …
…From his initial campaign for Texas governor in 1994, Bush has excelled at establishing and adhering to long-term plans. He is rigorous about sustaining a message or limiting his legislative agenda to a few priorities. But that laser-like focus can sometimes leave the administration unable to quickly recognize the significance of events that don’t fit into their blueprint, critics say.
“That’s just not how they think,” said Ron Klain, a former Clinton administration aide.
“Not very good” is an understatement. This blogger has written many times about the Bushies’ pathological inability to respond to unexpected crises. This is from the December 28, 2004 Mahablog about his slowness to respond to the tsunami disaster:
This, of course, is just part of a pattern. After September 11 The Brat had to hide out on Air Force One for several hours before he could pull himself together (or sober up?) and act like a president. More than a year ago he had to be coaxed into addressing the nation after a particularly bloody day in Iraq (not as bloody as the days have been since, of course). And do you remember The Blackout of August 2003? I wrote at the time
It took him four hours to bring himself to speak to the nation after the Blackout began, and then he could do so only on tape. (Drunk or stupid? We report — you decide.) After this week’s bombing that killed at least 20 UN workers, Bush’s keepers managed to get him off the golf course, into a suit and tie, and in front of cameras a bit faster. The keepers are learning, it seems.
Of course, he would have been a lot quicker if he’d been able to wear a quasi-military costume and prance around in front of a few thousand screaming groupies.
You can read more about the Boy’s slow response to the tsunami in this Washington Post article of December 29, 2004:
The Bush administration more than doubled its financial commitment yesterday to provide relief to nations suffering from the Indian Ocean tsunami, amid complaints that the vacationing President Bush has been insensitive to a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. … domestic criticism of Bush continued to rise. Skeptics said the initial aid sums — as well as Bush’s decision at first to remain cloistered on his Texas ranch for the Christmas holiday rather than speak in person about the tragedy — showed scant appreciation for the magnitude of suffering and for the rescue and rebuilding work facing such nations as Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia. …
… Some foreign policy specialists said Bush’s actions and words both communicated a lack of urgency about an event that will loom as large in the collective memories of several countries as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks do in the United States. “When that many human beings die — at the hands of terrorists or nature — you’ve got to show that this matters to you, that you care,” said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
There was an international outpouring of support after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and even some administration officials familiar with relief efforts said they were surprised that Bush had not appeared personally to comment on the tsunami tragedy. “It’s kind of freaky,” a senior career official said.
Last March, the White House was criticized for failing to express sympathy for the shootings on the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota.
And may I say … Katrina?
Brownstein and Wallsten draw parallels between Katrina and the veep’s utterly inappropriate non-response to his shooting of a hunting partner:
The Cheney shooting and the Katrina response have raised tough questions about what the president knows, when he knows it and how the White House shares information with elected officials and the public.
Which leads us to …
Observation #2: They can’t communicate with each other.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett rejected the suggestion that the two controversies [Katrina and The Shooting] pointed to communication failures among Bush and his aides. “That’s just over-interpreting,” he said.
Yet other observers, in both parties, maintained the incidents underscored concerns about Bush’s willingness and capacity to react to unanticipated challenges.
“If the buck stops with you, you are the person who has to take charge,” said Leon E. Panetta, a White House chief of staff under President Clinton. “I get the impression in this White House that the buck sometimes stops everywhere else but [with] the president…. Frankly, that mentality leads to nothing but trouble.”
Some senior Republicans, including top officials from previous GOP administrations, privately said they shared Panetta’s views.
One GOP fundraiser close to the White House said he thought the administration’s response to the news that Cheney had mistakenly shot a fellow hunter Saturday so closely replicated the Katrina experience that he wondered, “Is this a bad dream we are seeing again?”
“There is a pattern here,” said the fundraiser, who requested anonymity when discussing the administration’s workings.
Regarding the Saturday hunting incident, the White House account of who said what to whom, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told the President there had been a hunting accident at 7:30 pm Saturday, but Card had not learned that Cheney was the shooter. First, does anyone remember who told Card? I know he didn’t hear about the shooting from Cheney. Second, how weird is it that Card hadn’t bothered to ask who the shooter was? It was left to Karl Rove to inform Bush of this little detail, about 7:50 pm. It appears Karl learned what happened from ranch owner Katharine Armstrong, not through Bush Administration channels.
This is the same pattern we saw after Katrina, when White House staff tip-toed around in fear of telling the President the true dimensions of the unfolding catastrophe. Brownstein and Wallsten also remind us of the decision to invade Iraq:
But the question of whether the president receives a wide enough range of information has persisted for years — most notably in the administration’s conclusion before invading Iraq that leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
In a little-noticed remark in November, national security adviser Stephen Hadley conceded that there might have been flaws in the information flow to the Oval Office, preventing Bush from hearing that many intelligence experts disagreed about Hussein’s arsenal.
“One of the things we’ve all learned from that is that it is important [to] … make sure that dissenting opinions also are given visibility,” Hadley told reporters.
The final observation:
Observation #3: Who’s in Charge?
Brownstein and Wallsten write,
The hunting imbroglio has sparked a related question about Bush’s management style: whether he has provided the vice president too much autonomy in an administration in which Cheney has wielded as much influence as any second in command. …
…The incident has also revived the debate about the degree of Cheney’s independence in the administration. Cheney’s office did not confirm the shooting until Sunday, after his host on the ranch, with his agreement, informed a local newspaper.
In an interview Wednesday with Fox News, Cheney said White House communications officials encouraged him “to get the story out,” but deferred to him on how to release the story.
That follows the pattern established since Bush took office in 2001, said one former senior administration official who closely observed the relationship between the presidential and vice presidential staffs.
“The vice president’s office does indeed operate with a significant degree of autonomy,” said the former official, who requested anonymity when discussing internal White House relations. “Unless the vice president is helping the president to deliver a message [on policy], it is really the VP’s office that decides what they want to do when.”
This is from yesterday’s New York Times article by David Sanger:
Until this week, the periodic disconnect between Mr. Cheney’s office and the rest of the White House has been the source of grumbling, but rarely open tension. … In the past five years, Mr. Cheney has grown accustomed to having a power center of his own, with his own miniature version of a national security council staff. It conducts policy debates that often happen parallel those among Mr. Bush’s staff.
Sanger relates an incident in which the Vice President made a speech that stated a position contrary to the President’s decisions. Sanger writes, “it was left to Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, to call Mr. Cheney and get him to strike that wording from a speech he was giving a few days later.”
Bush can’t stand up to Cheney? So who’s in charge?
Back in 2000, when George W. choose Dick to be his running mate, there was much gushing in news media about the seasoned, experienced hand that would be guiding Bush in foreign policy. But as revealed in this 2003 article in Washington Monthly by Josh Marshall, “Vice Grip,” going way back Cheney’s judgments and opinions have been, um, kind of freaky. I urge you to read it, because it reveals much about the Cheney mindset — for example, this paragraph about the corporate-Washington-insider class of which Cheney is the insider’s insider:
In such a framework all information is controlled tightly by the principals, who have “maximum flexibility” to carry out the plan. Because success is measured by securing the deal rather than by, say, pleasing millions of customers, there’s no need to open up the decision-making process. To do so, in fact, is seen as governing by committee. If there are other groups (shareholders, voters, congressional committees) who agree with you, fine, you use them. But anyone who doesn’t agree gets ignored or, if need be, crushed. Muscle it through and when the results are in, people will realize we were right is the underlying attitude.
That might work, except Cheney is more often wrong than right. Josh provides lots of examples. Worse, I strongly suspect Cheney is pathologically delusional. I wrote about this in the past; see “Moron, Idiot, or Nefarious Bastard?”
In sum, we a President who likes to prance around in flight suits and talk tough, but who can’t stand up to his father-figure Vice President. And the veep is a whackjob. Nice.