December 03, 2002
The Bush Administration Policy Process

John DiIullio on the Bush Administration policy process. The contrast between what he describes and the policy-centered and -focused Clinton Administration could not be greater...

To: Ron Suskind [ESQUIRE Magazine]
From: John DiIulio
Subject: Your next essay on the Bush administration
Date: October 24, 2002

Dear Ron:

For/On the Record

My perspective on the president and the administration reflects both my experiences at the White House and my views as a political scientist and policy scholar. Regarding the former, I spent a couple one-on-one hours with then-Governor Bush during a visit he made to Philadelphia a few months before the Republican Convention there. I helped with certain campaign speeches and with certain speeches once he became president. I spent time with the president in briefings, in meetings with groups, and on certain trips. I was there in the White House during the first 180 days. I was an Assistant to the President, and attended many, though by no means all, senior staff meetings. I was not at all a close "insider" but I was very much on the inside. I observed and heard a great deal that concerned policy issues and political matters well outside my own issue sets. Regarding the latter, I have studied American government and public policy and administration for over twenty years. I have worked and run research programs at both liberal and conservative think tanks, developed community programs through national non-profit groups, and so forth

In my view, President Bush is a highly admirable person of enormous personal decency. He is a godly man and a moral leader. He is much, much smarter than some people-including some of his own supporters and advisers-seem to suppose. He inspires personal trust, loyalty, and confidence in those around him. In many ways, he is all heart. Clinton talked "I feel your pain." But as Bush showed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he truly does feel deeply for others and loves this country with a passion

The little things speak legions. Notice how he decided to let the detainees come home from China and did not jump all over them for media purposes. I could cite a dozen such examples of his dignity and personal goodness. Or I recall how, in Philly, following a 3-hour block party on July 4, 2001, following hours among the children, youth, and families of prisoners, we were running late for the next event. He stopped, however, to take a picture with a couple of men who were cooking ribs all day. "C'mon," he said, "those guys have been doing hard work all day there." It's my favorite-and in some ways, my most telling-picture of who he is as a man and a leader who pays attention to the little things that convey respect and decency toward others

But the contrast with Clinton is two-sided. As Joe Klein has so strongly captured him, Clinton was "the natural," a leader with a genuine interest in the policy process who encouraged information-rich decision-making. Clinton was the policy-wonk-in-chief. The Clinton administration drowned in policy intellectuals and teemed with knowledgeable people interested in making government work. Every domestic issue drew multiple policy analyses that certainly weighted politics, media messages, legislative strategy, et cetera, but also strongly weighted policy-relevant information, stimulated substantive policy debate, and put a premium on policy knowledge. That is simply not Bush's style. It fits not at all with his personal cum presidential character. The Bush West Wing is very nearly at the other end of this Clinton policy-making continuum

Besides the tax cut, which was cut-and-dried during the campaign, and the education bill, which was really a Ted Kennedy bill, the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded non-partisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism. There is still two years, maybe six, for them to do more and better on domestic policy, and, specifically, on the compassion agenda. And, needless to say, 9/11, and now the global war on terror and the new homeland and national security plans, must be weighed in the balance

But, as I think Andy Card himself told you in so many words, even allowing for those huge contextual realities, they could stand to find ways of inserting more serious policy fiber into the West Wing diet, and engage much less in on-the-fly policy-making by speech-making. They are almost to an individual nice people, and there are among them several extremely gifted persons who do indeed know-and care-a great deal about actual policy-making, administrative reform, and so forth. But they have been, for whatever reasons, organized in ways that make it hard for policy-minded staff, including colleagues (even secretaries) of cabinet agencies, to get much West Wing traction, or even get a non-trivial hearing

In this regard, at the six-month senior staff retreat on July 9, 2001, an explicit discussion ensued concerning how to emulate more strongly the Clinton White House's press, communications, and rapid-response media relations-how better to wage, if you will, the permanent campaign that so defines the modern presidency regardless of who or which party occupies the Oval Office. I listened and was amazed. It wasn&Mac226;t more press, communications, media, legislative strategizing, and such that they needed

Maybe the Clinton people did that better, though, surely, they were less disciplined about it and leaked more to the media and so on. No, what they needed, I thought then and still do now, was more policy-relevant information, discussion, and deliberation. In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues

There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, non-stop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking-discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue

Likewise, every administration at some point comes to think of the White House as its own private tree house, to define itself as "us" versus "them" on Capitol Hill, or in the media, or what have you, and, before 100 days are out, to vest ever more organizational and operational authority with the White House&Mac226;s political, press, and communications people, both senior and junior. I think, however, that the Bush administration-maybe because they were coming off Florida and the election controversy, maybe because they were so unusually tight-knit and "Texas," maybe because the chief of staff, Andy Card, was more a pure staff process than a staff leader or policy person, or maybe for other reasons I can&Mac226;t recognize-was far more inclined in that direction, and became progressively more so as the months pre-9/11 wore on

This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis-staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered

I could cite a half-dozen examples, but, on the so-called faith bill, they basically rejected any idea that the president's best political interests-not to mention the best policy for the country-could be served by letting centrist Senate Democrats in on the issue, starting with a bipartisan effort to review the implementation of the kindred law (called "charitable choice") signed in 1996 by Clinton. For a fact, had they done that, six months later they would have had a strongly bipartisan copycat bill to extend that law. But, over-generalizing the lesson from the politics of the tax cut bill, they winked at the most far-right House Republicans who, in turn, drafted a so-called faith bill (H.R. 7, the Community Solutions Act) that (or so they thought) satisfied certain fundamentalist leaders and beltway libertarians but bore few marks of "compassionate conservatism" and was, as anybody could tell, an absolute political non-starter. It could pass the House only on a virtual party-line vote, and it could never pass the Senate, even before Jeffords switched

Not only that, but it reflected neither the president's own previous rhetoric on the idea, nor any of the actual empirical evidence that recommended policies promoting greater public/private partnerships involving community-serving religious organizations. I said so, wrote memos, and so on for the first six weeks. But, hey, what's that fat, out-of-the-loop professor guy know; besides, he says he'll be gone in six months. As one senior staff member chided me at a meeting at which many junior staff were present and all ears, "John, get a faith bill, any faith bill." Like college students who fall for the colorful, opinionated, but intellectually third-rate professor, you could see these 20- and 30-something junior White House staff falling for the Mayberry Machiavellis. It was all very disheartening to this old, Madison-minded American government professor

Madison aside, even Machiavelli might have a beef. The West Wing staff actually believed that they could pass the flawed bill, get it through conference, and get it to the president's desk to sign by the summer

Instead, the president got a political black eye when they could easily have handed him a big bipartisan political victory. The best media events were always the bipartisan ones anyway, like the president's visit to the U.S

Mayors Conference in Detroit in June 2001. But my request to have him go there was denied three times on the grounds that it would "play badly" or "give the Democrat mayors a chance to bash him on other issues." Nothing of the sort happened; it was a great success, as was having Philly's black Democratic mayor, John Street, in the gallery next to Mrs. Bush in February 2001 at the president&Mac226;s first Budget Address. But they could not see it, and instead went back to courting conservative religious leaders and groups

The "faith bill" saga also illustrates the relative lack of substantive concern for policy and administration. I had to beg to get a provision written into the executive orders that would require us to conduct an actual information-gathering effort related to the president's interest in the policy. With the exception of some folks at OMB, nobody cared a fig about the five-agency performance audit, and we got less staff help on it than went into any two PR events or such. Now, of course, the document the effort produced (Unlevel Playing Field) is cited all the time, and frames the administrative reform agenda that-or so the Mayberry Machiavellis had insisted-had no value

Even more revealing than what happened during the first 180 days is what did not, especially on the compassion agenda beyond the faith bill and focusing on children. Remember "No child left behind"? That was a Bush campaign slogan. I believe it was his heart, too. But translating good impulses into good policy proposals requires more than whatever somebody thinks up in the eleventh hour before a speech is to be delivered, or whatever symbolic politics plan-"communities of character" and such-gets generated by the communications, political strategy, and other political shops

During the campaign, for instance, the president had mentioned Medicaid explicitly as one program on which Washington might well do more. I co-edited a whole (boring!) Brookings volume on Medicaid; some people inside thought that universal health care for children might be worth exploring, especially since, truth be told, the existing laws take us right up to that policy border. They could easily have gotten in behind some proposals to implement existing Medicaid provisions that benefit low-income children

They could have fashioned policies for the working poor. The list is long

Long, and fairly complicated, especially when-as they stipulated from the start-you want to spend little or no new public money on social welfare, and you have no real process for doing meaningful domestic policy analysis and deliberation. It's easier in that case to forget Medicaid refinements and react to calls for a "PBOR," patients&Mac226; bill of rights, or whatever else pops up

Some are inclined to blame the high political-to-policy ratios of this administration on Karl Rove. Some in the press view Karl as some sort of prince of darkness; actually, he is basically a nice and good-humored man

And some staff members, senior and junior, are awed and cowed by Karl's real or perceived powers. They self-censor lots for fear of upsetting him, and, in turn, few of the president's top people routinely tell the president what they really think if they think that Karl will be brought up short in the bargain. Karl is enormously powerful, maybe the single most powerful person in the modern, post-Hoover era ever to occupy a political advisor post near the Oval Office. The Republican base constituencies, including beltway libertarian policy elites and religious right leaders, trust him to keep Bush "43" from behaving like Bush "41" and moving too far to the center or inching at all center-left. Their shared fiction, supported by zero empirical electoral studies, is that "41" lost in '92 because he lost these right-wing fans. There are not ten House districts in America where either the libertarian litany or the right-wing religious policy creed would draw majority popular approval, and, most studies suggest, Bush "43" could have done better versus Gore had he stayed more centrist, but, anyway, the fiction is enshrined as fact. Little happens on any issue without Karl's okay, and, often, he supplies such policy substance as the administration puts out. Fortunately, he is not just a largely self-taught, hyper-political guy, but also a very well informed guy when it comes to certain domestic issues. (Whether, as some now assert, he even has such sway in national security, homeland security, and foreign affairs, I cannot say.) Karl was at his political and policy best, I think, in steering the president's stem-cell research decision, as was the president himself, who really took this issue on board with an unusual depth of reading, reflection, and staff deliberation. Personally, I would have favored a position closer to the Catholic Church's on the issue, but this was one instance where the administration really took pains with both politics and policy, invited real substantive knowledge into the process, and so forth

It was almost as if it took the most highly charged political issue of its kind to force them to take policy-relevant knowledge seriously, to have genuine deliberation

Contrast that, however, with the remarkably slap-dash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically-timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration problem in miniature: Ridge was the decent fellow at the top, but nobody spent the time to understand that an EOP entity without budgetary or statutory authority can't "coordinate" over 100 separate federal units, no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right they feel the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be

The good news, however, is that the fundamentals are pretty good-the president's character and heart, the decent, well-meaning people on staff, Karl's wonkish alter-ego, and the fact that, a year after 9/11 and with a White House that can find time enough to raise $140 million for campaigns, it&Mac226;s becoming fair to ask, on domestic policy and compassionate conservatism, "Where's the beef?" Whether because they will eventually be forced to defend the president's now thin record on domestic policy and virtually empty record on compassionate conservatism, or for other reasons, I believe that the best may well be yet to come from the Bush administration. But, in my view, they will not get there without some significant reforms to the policy-lite inter-personal and organizational dynamics of the place.



Posted by DeLong at December 03, 2002 06:05 AM | Trackback

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What is the source for this document? Being able to
verify its authenticity would add to its credibility. I'm currently reluctant to cite it to friends without a source.

Posted by: Stefan on December 3, 2002 07:14 AM

It's published in this month's Esquire. However, DiIullio has recanted his story as "groundless and baseless" due to pressure from the administration:

Posted by: Mark Rickling on December 3, 2002 07:41 AM

Mark, thanks for the link to the WP story. But what is the source for the email? I assume the whole email isn't in the Esquire story.

Posted by: Stefan on December 3, 2002 07:56 AM

You can access the full text of DiIulio's letter to Suskind here.

Posted by: Randy Paul on December 3, 2002 08:07 AM

Brad, your thoughts? Even though you weren't in the EOP, you were pretty close to that scene ...

Posted by: Paul on December 3, 2002 08:39 AM

Let's see, DiIulio hasn't stated his own letter was fabricated... so he must have quoted himself out of context? Or been victim of food poisoning, or a tropical fever? Ari, Mickey, somebody help me out here?

Posted by: on December 3, 2002 08:55 AM

Found it! The source for the email is Matt Drudge:

Posted by: Stefan on December 3, 2002 08:55 AM

In case you don't trust Drudge (also, I believe that link will expire when he puts up a new flash), Esquire has the message up here and on 3 subsequent pages.

Does anyone know whether DiIulio's retraction of his statement as "groundless and baseless" was before or after Ari Fleischer's condemnation of it as "baseless and groundless"?

Posted by: Matt Weiner on December 3, 2002 09:33 AM

So the administration's modus operandi is to do what they believe their constituents want. Isn't this an impeachable offense?

Posted by: Brian on December 3, 2002 09:35 AM

>>Brad, your thoughts? Even though you weren't in the EOP, you were pretty close to that scene ...<<

Well, the situation inside the Clinton Administration was very different from what John DiIulio (and others who are more... discreet... about putting things down on paper in black and white) describe. For example, if you read Bob Woodward's _The Agenda_ and understand that Woodward's primary sources were the spin-doctors, you can recognize that their howls of pain (and Woodward's criticiams of Clinton) are overwhelmingly the result of the spin doctors losing internal battle after internal battle with the people who cared about making good policies to make the country a better place.

In large part, this different balance of power between substance and spin is due to the difference between the Presidents: Whatever you don't like about Clinton, he is very smart and very interested in public policies--in what the government does and how it does it. Bush isn't.

The senior Clinton people--Bob Rubin, Leon Panetta, Lloyd Bentsen, Bruce Reed, Gene Sperling, Larry Summers, Frank Raines, Laura Tyson, et cetera--are very impressive from a technocratic point of view. A bunch of the senior Bush people are impressive as well: Glenn Hubbard, Peter Fisher, and John Taylor come to mind immediately as the equals of the Clintonites from a technocratic point of view. But--and this is where DiIulio's anger comes from--the Bush "substance" people are nearly powerless...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on December 3, 2002 09:38 AM

Regarding DiIulio's retraction, I gather that the Esquire story consists of more than just the contents of the letter. I would certainly expect there to be some text added to flesh out the article, and add some context.

That's probably where some of what DiIulio's talking about happens.

Posted by: Jon H on December 3, 2002 09:45 AM

Cutting to the chase:

Dear Ron

For/On the Record

The Emperor has no clothes



"For the Record" or "To the Record" are routine constructions. "For/On the Record" here strikes me as a cry of heartfelt pain, perhaps written with the author's conscious expectation that he would issue disclaimers after the fact.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on December 3, 2002 11:19 AM

Here's an article where Mr. DiIulio attacks his own comments:,2933,71919,00.html

Pretty bizarre. As I recall, during the Clinton Administration people within the White House would take the lead on attacking those who "spilled the beans." Perhaps this is an example of Republican costcutting, having the whistleblower attack himself.

Posted by: Ken Hagler on December 3, 2002 01:54 PM

Perhaps DiIulio has observed the strange career of David Brock and concluded that the royal road to credibility among people like, well, most of the people who post here, is to publicly call oneself a liar.

Posted by: Paul Zrimsek on December 3, 2002 02:08 PM

Dunno--which seems more plausible to you:
(1) DiIulio writes an extensive memo that is completely fictional, makes sure that it will be quoted in Esquire, and then retracts it in a fit of remorse over his lying;
(2) DiIulio writes an extensive memo that is largely accurate about the White House, makes sure that Esquire will be able to publish it on the web, gets serious pressure put on him by the White House, and issues an insincere retraction, muttering under his breath "Eppur, si muove"?

Or: What would you think if something similar had happened under Clinton's administration?

(It's kind of distressing how far you have to go into the Google search for "Eppur si muove" before you get to something that's actually about Galileo, the astronomer.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner on December 3, 2002 02:19 PM

What a sad letter that is!

It recalls for me Albert Hirshman's "Voice Exit and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States" where he ponders how by then (the early 70s?) the practice of men in Goverment to publically resign as a matter of principle had largely died out.

Hirshman's little model is that as an organization you reside in declines you have three choices. You can remain silently loyal, you can speak out, or you can leave. You can feel DiIullio torn between these options all thru that note. Hirshman goes on to suggest that authoritarians lean heavily toward loyality, liberals toward voice, and economists toward exit.

Posted by: Ben Hyde on December 3, 2002 05:31 PM

Are (1) and (2) the only choices we get? I note that if either of them is true, DiIulio is or was.... lying.

Posted by: Paul Zrimsek on December 3, 2002 05:55 PM

Well (I actually talk about this in my dissertation, which my committee is reading, which is why I'm posting so dang much--I just wanted to say that--where was I?),
If a guy says something and then retracts it, he's wrong at least once.

The evidence you have depends on whether the original statement is more credible than the retraction. Which depends on the best explanation for the statement, and the retraction, given what else we know.*

Most of the time, the retraction is more credible; either the speaker has thought it over and realized he was mistaken, or he has lied and thought better of it. This isn't one of those times, though; the hypothesis that the White House put pressure on DiIulio (possibly through the university) seems at least as compelling. To me, anyway. (Why would DiIulio take such pains to praise GW Bush in his letter if he were slandering his administration?)

DiIulio's retraction to Fox News, as noted, sounded like a non-denial denial, which wouldn't be a lie. But "groundless and baseless" might be. Well, Galileo was lying when he retracted, too.

Anyway, there might be other hypotheses than (1) and (2), but I don't feel like thinking them up.

*yeah, this is pedantic, and a gratuitous rehash of a dissertation passage. I'm trying to get into practice.

Posted by: Matt Weiner on December 3, 2002 06:15 PM

Why would DiIulio take such pains to praise GW Bush in his letter if he were slandering his administration?

It might be slander if we were the intended audience. We're not.

DiIulio uses the combination of two apparently contradictory statements to deliver an urgent message that is neither ambiguous nor deceptive, while neutralizing certain routine discounting mechanisms, bypassing several layers of filters, and amplifying the message above background noise.

Nicely done ... and if it backfires horribly, nothing is really lost.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on December 3, 2002 11:56 PM

DiIulio seems to be playing the Russian peasant, who believes that the wonderful Czar would make everything right if only he wasn't surrounded by evil advisers.

As several have noted, the media works that way. The various spokespersons for the administration's unpopular or unsuccessful policies serve to distract attention from Bush's role. Harvey Pitt was a good example -- on the substantive issues his policies were Bush's policies, but when he left most stories stressed Pitt's personal blunders and office-politics faux pas.

Posted by: zizka on December 4, 2002 07:20 AM

RonK, I think I was unclear. My point was, if DiIulio were making up false stories about G. W. Bush's administration, then his motive would be to damage G. W. Bush and those around him. He would then have little incentive to praise G. W. Bush the way he did.

If he were being truly Machiavellian, perhaps he would issue some left-handed compliments ("Bush isn't an evil man, but he's lost control of his administration") in order to build up his credibility. On the other hand, if DiIulio were that Machiavellian, he wouldn't be retracting his statement, either.

The simpler hypothesis is that DiIulio's memo was sincere, and that he got his arm twisted to retract it. Doesn't count as slander because it's true.

zizka, I agree, but I suspect DiIulio is sincere--he has bought the line that Bush cares about what he cares about, though nothing in Bush's biography suggests that he cares much about policy.

Posted by: Matt Weiner on December 4, 2002 09:59 AM

'Like college students who fall for the colorful, opinionated, but intellectually third-rate professor, you could see these 20- and 30- something junior White House staff falling for the Mayberry Machiavellis.'

For some reason, this line really stands out to me. It's a metaphor for the entire administration, I think. If you look at the lack of Washington experience in Bush's inner campaign circle (Rove, Bush himself, etc.) it certainly makes sense.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on December 9, 2002 12:18 AM
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