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‘Compassionate conservativism’ just words

The curtain of “compassionate conservatism” covering the Bush administration’s domestic policy was just pulled back by the man who used to run it, John DiIulio, former director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

His informed conclusion: There’s nothing behind the flowery rhetoric except politics.

DiIulio, a widely respected academic who left the administration to return to the University of Pennsylvania in August 2001, gave a lengthy (a 3,500-word letter) description of the Bush administration domestic policy apparatus to Esquire magazine.

Not since December 1981, when Reagan Budget Director David Stockman revealed that “none of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers” has a Washington insider spilled the beans so completely.

DiIulio offered a damning indictment:

  • “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.”
  • “On social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking …” Senior policymakers were apparently unaware of the difference between Medicaid, the federal/state partnership that provides health coverage to the poor, and Medicare, the federally-funded insurance program for the elderly, wrote DiIulio.
  • Domestic policy was in the hands of “Mayberry Machiavellis,” wrote DiIulio, staff members 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 … but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.”
  • What might the administration have done to implement its compassionate conservative agenda? “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.”

There was, said DiIulio, a lone exception to the adhocracy ruling White House domestic decision-making: stem cell research. “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.”

DiIulio went into the administration with a plan. His research showed that government funding of programs administered at the local level by churches or “faith-based” groups -- organizations with credibility at the neighborhood level -- could make a real difference in the lives of the poor. DiIulio’s approach was well worth the effort, but it was sabotaged by White House political operatives more interested in the points they could score with the religious right than getting an inner-city teenager a job. What a shame.

Soon after the Esquire magazine piece hit the streets, DiIulio apologized to his former colleagues in the Bush administration and said he would no longer be commenting on his days in the White House. It’s not he who owes an apology.

Governing, whether making choices over funds for Medicare or Medicaid, housing programs, welfare reform or education, is serious business. It’s time the administration ridded itself of its “Mayberry Machiavellis,” the Barney Fifes of the West Wing, and began to act like the poor and the marginalized in this society deserve serious consideration.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002