TCS Daily

Keystone Kops

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - December 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Whatever one's preferences in the Presidential election, it seems clear that George W. Bush's political team was far more skilled and competent than John Kerry's. This is evidenced by Bush's win, of course, but a detailed inside look at the 2004 Presidential campaign shows many instances in which Bush's team outwitted and outmaneuvered Kerry's. The election might have been close on paper, but in the inside baseball competition between the two campaign staffs, it was no contest.

But since the election, it seems that the vaunted skills of President Bush's political staff have deserted him. Of course, the most famous case is the bungled nomination of Bernard Kerik for the position of Secretary of Homeland Security; but there was also the "should-he-stay-or-should-he-go" Hamletian dilemma concerning the fate of Treasury Secretary John Snow. In the end, Snow was asked to stay by the President, but the dithering was both unseemly and unnerving for those who hope for the Administration's success and understand that whatever success it enjoys in a second term will depend in large part on whether the Administration can field a competent political team.

Of course, every President needs a competent political team. But not every President has set before himself and his Administration such a sweeping set of legislative priorities. Among other things, the President has said that he wants to reform Social Security by allowing for personal savings accounts to give Americans more individual choice on how to invest their retirement savings. The Administration has also said that it wants to fundamentally reform the tax system. Both of these projects are bound to upset key interest groups, popular constituencies and large segments of a Democratic Party that deeply dislikes President Bush. While the President -- like his predecessors -- enjoys a freer hand in the field of foreign and national security policy, in domestic policy, he must work closely with Congress and the political establishment. And in many ways, his success in crafting a domestic agenda will depend on the talents of the political staff around him.

And recently, the Administration hasn't been well-served by the political staff that it has. It isn't panic time just yet, but President Bush has to make absolutely sure that the rough patches encountered over the Kerik nomination and the uncertainty concerning the fate of the Treasury Secretary are not harbingers of further mistakes to come.

The Administration needs to remind itself that even though it has won re-election and Republicans have increased their margins in both houses of Congress, the country remains polarized and politically divided. While the President should enter his second term stronger politically than when he entered his first term (mainly due to the benefits of winning the popular vote), he will not be given much of a honeymoon period by Democrats in Congress. Even if Democrats were willing to give the President a honeymoon, their core base would not stand for it. It will be rough sledding legislatively from almost the very beginning of the President's second term -- and thus, the political staff's talents will immediately face stern tests.

The downside of having an ambitious domestic agenda is that it affords the White House and congressional Republicans every chance of falling on its face in trying to implement that agenda. The bigger the political task, after all, the more spectacular the results of political failure. Even now, as passions from the 2004 election begin to cool down, the prelude to the 2006 midterm elections has begun. The last two midterm elections have seen the incumbent political party in the White House gain seats in Congress, but historically, the incumbent party loses seats--a more likely outcome for the Bush Administration and Republicans if the President's domestic agenda is defeated or substantially diluted.

There is also the fact that after the midterm elections, interest surrounding the 2008 Presidential election will begin to pick up substantially. And by that time, President Bush will be a lame duck -- unable to wield much power on the domestic front. His window of opportunity to effect key domestic reforms is therefore quite short and he will need to make the best use of the time he has. That only serves to emphasize the President's need for his political staff to be at the top of their game. First term Presidents can make use of the possibility of a second term to continue to be a political force. But second term Presidents are competing with the clock from the moment they are re-elected, and near the end of their terms, the political establishment is usually more disposed to wait an incumbent President out and prepare to deal with his successor rather than work towards the last minute to try to achieve something substantive on the domestic and legislative front. If a first term President's political staff does not help him maximize his political and legislative gains, the President may still eke out a second term and come back to fight again for his priorities. But if a second term President fails on the legislative front in the brief time that he is politically potent, it will constitute time irretrievably lost.

That is why the recent ineptitude of the President's political staff should concern the White House. Unless the Bush Administration gets its act together on process, it will run into serious problems in other policymaking arenas. Politicians gravitate towards winners, and winners are supposed to display procedural competence. If the Bush Administration does not find the procedural touch that it displayed in the past -- a procedural touch that helped the President win re-election and won the Administration's political staff grudging respect from Democrats -- there will emerge a correlation in the minds of other politicians and in the mind of the public at large between procedural and political incompetence, and the quality of the Administration's substantive policy proposals. That may not be a fair correlation to draw, but that's the way the world of politics works. President Bush will be well-advised to gather his staff together, make clear that he is displeased in the way in which recent procedural matters have been handled, hold people accountable, and then declare that amateur hour in the White House's political shop is over.

And for the sake of his domestic agenda, he had better hope that his declaration is right.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


TCS Daily Archives