Regular readers of this column know that earlier this year, I published a book highly critical of George W. Bush for his deviations from conservative principles, which got me fired from an intellectually bankrupt think tank. Since publication of that book, however, Bush has actually fixed some of the problems identified in my book. It almost makes me think that someone in the White House read it very thoroughly and took its message to heart.
The first big improvement was installation of Joshua Bolten as White House chief of staff. Although he has been known to snub me at social events for my criticisms of the president, nevertheless I believe that he is far better than his predecessor, Andy Card. From what I could see, Card thought his function was to nod vigorously and agree with every word that came out of the president’s mouth, never questioning his judgment or actions in any way whatsoever.
But a good chief of staff in the White House or any other organization must challenge his boss from time to time. His main job is to make certain that the boss gets all the facts, information, analyses and opinions necessary to make decisions. Since this is not something that comes naturally to Bush, who prefers to talk only to those he knows will agree with him, it is absolutely essential that he have a chief of staff who will make sure that dissenting voices are heard and that the president doesn’t exist in a bubble, hearing only what he wants to hear.
Bolten seems to be doing a better job of this, at least on the domestic side, where he has brought in a number of new staff people who are noticeably superior to their predecessors.
The best known of these is Tony Snow as press secretary. I think I speak for every person who ever watches White House press briefings in saying that the day he took over, there was a very significant rise in the quality of these events. Even when Snow is dissembling, as all press secretaries necessarily must do, he does so in a way that doesn’t sound as if he is merely giving us rote repetition of White House talking points, as his two predecessors usually did.
Furthermore, I know that Snow is not just advising Bush on public relations strategy, but on policy as well, which is all to the good. As a columnist before becoming press secretary, Snow often criticized Bush for the same things I did in my book. For example, in February, Snow called Bush’s domestic policy “listless.” In March, Snow excoriated Bush and the Republican Congress for losing control of the federal budget.
In terms of economic policy, another excellent choice has been Wall Street banker Henry Paulson as secretary of the treasury. I think the White House made a grievous error in downgrading this department and making former Secretary John Snow little more than a cheerleader for every economic statistic that could be spun in a positive direction. This is a misuse of the secretary’s time and the department’s resources, which ought to be devoted to more serious matters, such as the gross imbalances in the international sector that are going to require a massive readjustment one day. Early signs are that Paulson understands this and is moving to re-establish the Treasury’s primacy in economic policy.
In the area of domestic policy, I think Bush made a wise decision with his appointment of Karl Zinsmeister as his chief domestic policy adviser. Zinsmeister has edited the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine for many years and probably has as deep a familiarity with conservative thinking on a broad range of domestic issues as anyone in America.
Like Tony Snow, Zinsmeister was not campaigning for a White House job and often criticized it for deviating from conservative principles. Said Zinsmeister in January, “Though he talks a good line about battling government bloat, our current president has shown an eerie lakawanna when it comes to actually keeping a lid on the federal Pandora’s Box.”
Finally, there has been a growing problem with government regulation in this administration that has also gotten out of control. In this regard, I was very pleased to see the nomination of George Mason University economist Susan Dudley to be the Office of Management and Budget’s regulation czar. I quoted her work extensively in my book and know that no one is more knowledgeable on the inner workings and economic effects of government regulation.
I could mention some others, as well, but the basic point is that Bush has greatly upgraded his staff and brought in some excellent new people. The only question now is whether it is too late for them to get domestic and economic policy back on track after years of unfortunate decisions. I hope not.