As a general rule, Thirty-Somethings ought not to write memoirs. Having worked down the block from the White House is not, as in David Kuo’s case, sufficient cause to make an exception to this rule. But Mr. Kuo, author of “Tempting Faith,” compensates for experiential shortcomings with a clever marketing strategy: Release this book a few weeks before a pivotal election, disparage the faith-based initiative with which he was intimately involved, take a few cheap shots at the Bush Administration and call on voters of faith to abandon their historical alliance with the Republican Party. Brilliant!
Bear in mind that the single most important dynamic in recent American electoral politics is the coalescing of religiously active voters behind the Republican Party. Rooters for the Democratic Party are desperate to reverse this migration—while avoiding the really tough questions of why the Democratic Party is found so inhospitable by folks who practice their religion.
Predictably, Mr. Kuo’s book was greeted with glee by the national media. There was a “60 Minutes” appearance, interviews on network news and laudatory columns in newspapers. Why, Mr. Kuo even concludes with a call for evangelicals to “fast” from politics. Not to interrupt these fantasies of religiously active voters’ staying home or finding new sympathy for the Democratic Party, but Mr. Kuo’s selective history regarding the faith-based initiative and compassionate conservatism—upon which his call for evangelical inactivity is based—are potentially too injurious to be allowed to pass.
Compassionate conservatism was a critical theme of President Bush’s 2000 election. It is at root a call to the country for a better response to human need and the assertion that conservative approaches are more effective at ameliorating human need than ever-greater government spending. It will be one of President Bush’s most important legacies.
One would never know it from Mr. Kuo’s account, but the Faith-Based Initiative has actually achieved substantial success. And it could have achieved much more but for the leadership shortcomings of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI), of which Mr. Kuo was for a time deputy director.
Mr. Kuo wants to lay those shortcomings at the feet of the senior White House staff, and implicitly at the feet of the President. “I had told Andy Card … what he needed to know. Fixing it, doing anything about it, was entirely up to him.” But Mr. Kuo, when you write that the “Bush White House” did “less than nothing to advance the faith-and-charity bill,” you seem to forget you were the White House. You were the architect of the failed legislative strategy. You were the one given an historic opportunity to make the initiative a success.
Here’s the back story. The White House senior staff was guilty of making two mistakes in 2001. Thinking that enabling legislation would pass without controversy, this became the measure of success. It ought not to have been. The criterion of success should have been, from the beginning, “more organizations doing more things to help more people.” The initiative ought to have been programmatically about deploying technical assistance to help faith communities and other local community organizations create or expand programs to help those in need. Instead, the initiative was made about legislation—and then about money.
Mr. Kuo is schizophrenic on the matter of spending. He notes the failure of the multi-billion-dollar federal war on poverty, yet criticizes the White House for not pursuing new spending programs as part of the Faith-Based Initiative. He sought to add money to the dismal social services block grant. With a pool of up to $8 billion potentially available to faith-based and community organizations, one thing the initiative did not need was new money. Plus, it is a violation of a central ethic of the faith-based initiative to set aside funds for faith communities. Rather, the playing field should be made level so that faith communities are not discriminated against.
The second mistake came when the White House senior staff discovered that the initiative would be controversial. Much of the early controversy arose over homosexual rights, and the White House, Mr. Kuo included, underestimated the mendacity of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.). Who could possibly elevate pandering to the homosexual advocacy community over helping the poor? Asked and answered. Then came ill-advised comments in the press by staff of the OFBCI. Once the West Wing decided the initiative would not be an unmitigated political plus, their enthusiasm evaporated. From that point on, expectations of the initiative were low and oversight of the OFBCI inadequate.
Meanwhile, offices of faith-based and community initiatives had been created in those cabinet departments with the greatest domestic profile. These offices successfully pursued the reform of regulations so as to end discrimination against faith communities as deliverers of social services. Mr. Kuo makes no mention of this.
Moreover, a new attitude of openness to partnerships with faith communities and other community organizations infused the whole of the executive branch. In hundreds of uncounted ways (ways which should have been counted), senior leaders across the federal government sought to involve faith-based and community organizations in their programs, out of fidelity to the President’s vision. Mr. Kuo makes no mention.
And in the departmental faith-based offices, exciting innovation in the delivery of social services through non-traditional partnerships has occurred. Such efforts could serve as new models of responding to human need. Again, Mr. Kuo makes no mention.
Perhaps Mr. Kuo was genuinely unaware of the impact the initiative was having throughout government. Perhaps these activities did not meet his definition of what matters. There is a distinctly superficial quality to Mr. Kuo’s understanding of the governing process. His oft-repeated intention to help people in need is lofty and admirable. But in the end, it is only an intention, an intention expressed through speeches, congressional testimony and legislation. It is a quintessentially Washingtonian intentionality. Words do not improve the lives of people in need—the intention to do good is not sufficient justification. Even well-crafted legislation is, at best, the starting point. Genuine impact comes only with implementation, the grimly, unglamorous task of making a program achieve its intended objectives. There are no Klieg lights where the encounter with the person in need occurs.
A particular low of the book—loved by Bush critics—is the charge that Christian leaders were ridiculed behind their backs at the White House. Not a week went by, Mr. Kuo tells us, that he didn’t hear some comment about how annoying the Christians were. Why, one former official even called statements by the Rev. Jerry Falwell immoral and insane. Oh wait, that’s Mr. Kuo—seems something of a double standard is at work here. I would hope the White House staff did find Christian advocates annoying: It means they were doing their job. Any intimation that the President or person of influence in the West Wing harbors contempt for people of faith is pure calumny.
Mr. Kuo has had his fun. He made himself politically relevant. He enjoyed a moment of celebrity. He got to impugn the motivations and disparage the work of others. How all this helps those on the margins of our society is uncertain. How the departure of Christians and others of faith from the field of political action will protect them from the assaults from hostile secular elements of our society is similarly uncertain. What is certain is that Mr. Kuo’s obituary for the faith-based initiative and for compassionate conservatism is premature. With dedicated and effective leadership, the initiative will build upon its already considerable impact.
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