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The Perils of the Permanent Campaign

9 minute read
Joe Klein

On Dec. 10, 1976, a young pollster named Patrick H. Caddell submitted to President-elect Jimmy Carter a 62-page memo titled “Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy.” The subject was how to govern. “The old cliche about mistaking style for substance usually works the reverse in politics,” Caddell wrote. “Too many good people have been defeated because they tried to substitute substance for style; they forgot to give the public the kind of visible signals that it needs to understand what is happening.” Caddell then made some famous suggestions about ways Carter could sell his substance: by conducting a humble, informal presidency, cutting back “imperial frills and perks,” giving fireside chats, wearing sweaters instead of suits. “Essentially,” Caddell wrote, “it is my thesis governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.” (“Excellent,” Carter wrote in felt pen on the cover page, and instructed his Vice President, Walter Mondale, “See me on this. J.”)

Thus Caddell gave a name–the Permanent Campaign–to a political mind-set that had been developing since the beginning of the television age. It has proved a radical change in the nature of the presidency. Every President since Lyndon Johnson has run his Administration from a political consultant’s eye view. Untold millions have been spent on polling and focus groups. Dick Morris even asked voters where Bill Clinton should go on vacation. The pressure to “win” the daily news cycle–to control the news–has overwhelmed the more reflective, statesmanlike aspects of the office. An overcaffeinated and underdiscerning press has become complicit in the horse-race presidency. New policies are analyzed politically rather than for what they are intended to achieve. Success is measured in days and weeks–in polling blips–rather than months or years. This has been a terrible thing: Presidents need to be thinking past the horizon, as Jimmy Carter belatedly proved. Some of his best decisions–a strict monetary policy to combat inflation, a vigorous arms buildup against the Soviet threat–bore fruit years after he left office and were credited to his successor, Ronald Reagan. But then, Carter was among the worst recent Presidents as a Permanent Campaigner.

George W. Bush may be the very best. Indeed, his Administration represents the final, squalid perfection of the Permanent Campaign: a White House where almost every move is tactical, a matter of momentary politics, even decisions that involve life and death and war. That is what the Scooter Libby indictment is really all about. It is about trying to spin a war.

Bush’s White House is a conundrum, a bastion of telegenic idealism and deep cynicism. The President has proposed vast, transformational policies–the remaking of the Middle East, of Social Security, of the federal bureaucracy. But he has done so in a haphazard way, with little attention to detail or consequences. There are grand pronouncements and, yes, crusades, punctuated with marching words like evil and moral and freedom. Beneath, though, is the cynical assumption that the public doesn’t care about the details–that results don’t matter, corners can be cut and special favors bestowed. Bush opposed a Department of Homeland Security, then supported it as a campaign ploy–and then allowed it to be slapped together carelessly, diminishing the effectiveness of the agencies involved. The White House proposed a massive Medicare prescription-drug plan and then flat-out misrepresented the true costs (and quietly included a windfall for drug companies). Every bit of congressional vanity spending, every last tax cut, was approved. Reagan proved that “deficits don’t matter,” insisted Vice President Dick Cheney.

The second terms of Presidents are notoriously dreadful, but I wonder: Has the Permanent Campaign made the problem worse because it renders the politicians more myopic? Republicans seem better at campaigns, permanent and otherwise, than Democrats. It may be that conservatives just don’t take governance as seriously as liberals do, and therefore have more freedom to maneuver. Didn’t Reagan say government was “the problem, not the solution”? The very notion of planning for the common good, especially long-term planning, seems vaguely … socialist, doesn’t it? The Bush Administration is filled with hard-charging executives but bereft of meat-and-potatoes managers. Not much priority is placed on pedestrian things like delivering the ice to New Orleans or keeping the peace in Baghdad. Important government agencies–the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency–are run by political cronies or worse, by special-interest allies of the President intent on eviscerating the regulatory power of the agencies they were sent to manage. There is an arrogant slovenliness to it all that neuters the essential tenets of the conservative vision–that efficient markets are the best way to create wealth, that Democrats are puerile dreamers and Republicans adult realists.

A library will be written about the President’s decision to preempt the nonexistent threat of Saddam Hussein’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. It was a tough call, with principled arguments on both sides, and it is easy to forget now that almost everyone, even the French, believed that the weapons existed. But there was nothing principled about the Administration’s failure to recognize that lethal chaos was likely to follow the invasion. There was a delusional unwillingness to plan for a guerrilla insurgency, especially on the part of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who vastly underestimated the number of troops necessary for the operation–and who uttered some of the most embarrassing words ever spoken by a U.S. official as anarchy took hold. “Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld said, when asked about the looting in Baghdad at an April 11, 2003, press conference. “… [F]reedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

But worse, far worse, was the tendency of the White House–particularly Karl Rove’s message apparatus–to see the war as part of the Permanent Campaign, as a political opportunity at first and then, as the news turned bad, as merely another issue to be massaged. There is something quite obscene about the existence of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG). Its job had nothing to do with the military or political situation in Iraq; it was created to market the war and to smear the President’s opponents. Rove and Libby were at the heart of this group. Their decision to ask Congress for a war resolution in September 2002, two months before the congressional elections, seemed an obvious marketing ploy. Rove told Republicans that they could “go to the country with this issue,” that it would reinforce the party’s image as strong on defense. The simultaneous decision to take the Iraq situation to the United Nations was also a campaign ploy–polls showed the vast majority of voters favored this course–and a chimera. Both Cheney and Rumsfeld were opposed to the move, and Rumsfeld pretty much ignored it: he proceeded full-speed ahead, deploying troops for a late-winter invasion.

The rush to war was followed by a rush to peace, dictated by public relations needs and wishful thinking. The President’s declaration that “major combat operations” were over on May 1, 2003, after he co-piloted an airplane onto the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and emerged, jazzed, in a jaunty flight suit, seems almost ludicrous in retrospect. And it was accompanied by the utterly irresponsible decision of commanding General Tommy Franks to leave the theater of battle, taking with him his entire headquarters staff–including hundreds of intelligence officers.

And so we come to June 2003, the month that Scooter Libby became preoccupied with Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame. TIME magazine first used the word mess to describe the situation in Iraq in a June 9, 2003, issue headline. In the same issue, TIME wondered about what ever had happened to the “Weapons of Mass Disappearance.” At about the same time, the President was told, in a classified briefing by the CIA, that the U.S.-led coalition was facing a full-blown guerrilla insurgency in Iraq. Rumsfeld foolishly continued to deny this fact for another month.

In sum, June 2003 was the month that the vexing realities of the Iraq adventure first became clear to the Bush White House. It was also the month that the Administration began to act as if the war in Iraq were a public relations problem first and a military problem second. The WMD embarrassment clearly took precedence over the need to fight the insurgency. The White House created the Iraq Survey Group, sending former arms inspector David Kay and 1,200 intelligence officers to search for the nonexistent weapons, an action that infuriated Generals John Abizaid and Ricardo Sanchez, who believed that the top priority should be figuring out who the enemy was. Bush’s blithe invitation to the insurgents to “bring it on” a few weeks later was another indication that the Commander in Chief had absolutely no idea what actual combat is all about.

The refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the insurgency, the obsession with WMD–these were political acts, campaign ploys. And so was Libby’s apparent fixation on Ambassador Wilson, who was calling into question the Administration’s claims of an Iraqi nuclear program. The most important rationales for the war–that the invasion would go smoothly, that the “smoking gun may come in the form of a mushroom cloud”–were disintegrating. The presidential election of 2004 was looming. It seems a fair indication of the West Wing’s WHIGged-out desperation that Libby even attempted the oblique argument that Wilson was not to be trusted because his wife, a CIA analyst, had sent him to find out if Niger had sold uranium to Iraq. But it is an even better indication of how the White House reflexively dealt with unpleasant news: destroy the messenger. Last week there was more of the same, according to a prominent Republican, who told me that the White House had sent out talking points about how to attack Brent Scowcroft after Bush the Elder’s National Security Adviser went public with his opposition to the war in the New Yorker magazine. “I was so disgusted that I deleted the damn e-mail before I read it,” the Republican said. “But that’s all this White House has now: the politics of personal destruction.”

Libby’s grand-jury prevarications seem fairly substantial. But the real felonies of the Bush Administration are not criminal. They are political. They involve spinning, smearing and governmental malfeasance–the sordid tool kit of the Permanent Campaign.

> To see a collection of Klein’s recent columns, visit time.com/klein

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