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O Ye Of Little Faith

4 minute read
James Carney/Washington

To those who worked with him, the most surprising thing about the news that John J. DiIulio Jr. would be the first senior official to leave the Bush White House was that it didn’t come sooner. From the moment in January when the professor and registered Democrat was tapped to oversee Bush’s faith-based-charities initiative, DiIulio struggled in the job. As the program faltered in Congress, the outspoken, proudly impolitic DiIulio clashed with lawmakers, alienated religious conservatives and feuded with White House colleagues. A month ago, he sent a memo to the President’s top three aides laying out his plan to leave by early fall. Lately he has been coming to work so infrequently from his home in Philadelphia that his unpaid assistant took over his office. Last week, when he announced his intention to resign, DiIulio cited personal and health reasons. He has heart trouble, but was also frustrated with the good-soldier corporate culture of the Bush White House, and bitter about the suspicion and partisanship–on both sides–that had all but crippled his program. “The job is literally killing him,” a sympathetic White House official said last week. “He has to go.”

DiIulio’s departure would be less significant if the only other Democrat with a high-ranking White House job weren’t following him out the door. Not only is Sandy Kress a Democrat, but he’s also the lead negotiator and chief policymaker for Bush’s education-reform plan. Together with his faith-based initiative, education reform undergirded Bush’s claim to be a compassionate conservative. Like DiIulio, Kress was chosen because Bush hoped his Democratic credentials would attract bipartisan support. In Kress’s case, it worked. But after the education-reform bill clears Congress, expected next month, Kress will pack his bags.

What does it say about Bush that both Democrats in charge of top presidential priorities are quitting? “I think it’s just a coincidence,” insists White House spokesman Dan Bartlett. It’s true that both men let it be known in January that they would only stick around for six months or so. Kress hasn’t drawn a government salary, let alone hung pictures on his office walls. But others inside the Administration and on Capitol Hill argue that their departures will cause the balance of power within the White House to shift to the right. “The only two moderates in the place are leaving,” says a liberal House Democratic leadership aide who has worked with both men this year. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that means.”

On the other hand, some Republicans could barely contain their glee about Kress’ imminent departure.

Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer says the President “will miss John DiIulio.” But he won’t miss the controversy DiIulio stirred up. When Bush’s plan to fund religious charities ran into surprising resistance from Christian conservatives worried about government meddling in church affairs, DiIulio lashed out, labeling them “predominantly white, exurban, evangelical and national parachurch leaders.” And when word leaked that DiIulio’s No. 2, Don Eberly, and Bush adviser Karl Rove were entertaining an inappropriate request from the Salvation Army–to defend the charity’s right to discriminate against gays in exchange for its support for Bush’s bill–DiIulio was furious. After repeated false starts, a scaled-back version of the faith-based bill passed the House last month. But its prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate are dim at best.

Kress will at least be able to claim victory when he leaves. But he’ll be cursed for his success by Republicans on the Hill, many of whom blame him for compromising almost all of the conservative elements of Bush’s education plan, such as school vouchers. Republican lawmakers are so suspicious of Kress that many won’t deal with him directly. When House and Senate negotiators met recently to discuss the President’s bill, several Democratic Senators acknowledged Kress with approval. Hillary Clinton even gave him a kiss. Republicans just glared. They can start smiling soon.

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