White House makes fun of Evangelicals
Sun Oct 15, 2006 23:32


White House makes fun of Evangelicals


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October 15, 2006
Faith, politics, and David Kuo

A new book by David Kuo, a former official in the White House "faith-based initiatives" program, is making news. The book, Tempting Faith, is due in stores tomorrow, but MSNBC got an advance copy of the book. From an LA Times article on it:

A new book by a former White House official says that President Bush's top political advisors privately ridiculed evangelical supporters as "nuts" and "goofy" while embracing them in public and using their votes to help win elections.

The former official also writes that the White House office of faith-based initiatives, which Bush promoted as a nonpolitical effort to support religious social-service organizations, was told to host pre-election events designed to mobilize religious voters who would most likely favor Republican candidates.

Kuo describes how the faith-based initiatives program was used to drum up support from religious leaders in Congressional races, under the direction of RNC head Ken Mehlman. Which is not exactly a shocking revelation; you'd expect a political party to use one of its programs that way.

What I'm curious to hear more about is the genesis of the "faith based initiatives" and why the whole program became a back-burner item for the administration. It reeked of opportunism when we first heard about it; religious organizations have been using public money to deliver social services for a long time, and the "charitable choice" provisions of the 1996 Clinton welfare reform bill made the process easier.

The only new twist that the Bush administration was bringing to it was breaking down some of the safeguards to ensure that those organizations really used the money for its intended purposes, and not for proselytizing or other non-service activities.

As for the idea that the administration was using the religious community: well, no surprise there, either. If it wasn't clear before, the whole gay marriage debate should have made it obvious: put efforts into campaigns to make something already extra illegal even more illegal, then pretty much ignore the issue after election day. If people on the right didn't realized they'd been played after that, shame on them.

Of course, this isn't the first time we've heard the suggestion that the faith-based initiatives program was a political tool more than a substantive policy issue. Back in 2002, John DiIulio, who was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, wrote a letter to Ron Suskind, Esquire magazine's Washington correspondent, that made similar claims about the program as an example of the lack of serious domestic policymaking in the Bush White House. (DiIulio initially stood by his statement, then did an about face and retracted them.)

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.

At the New Republic's web site, Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Michael Currie Schaffer claims that DiIulio's turnabout was the result of political muscle from the White House (free registration required):

Bush takes a famously dim view of apostates. Whatever its failings in Iraq or Louisiana, his administration has demonstrated remarkable skill in deploying almost immediate beat-downs of insiders who break ranks. There was the Army chief of staff who made the pre-war political faux pas of saying that Iraq would need lots of troops: Bam! Or the top economic aide whose predictions about the war's financial costs similarly deviated from the party line: Splat! Not to mention the Niger yellow-cake fact-finder who aired his doubts in The New York Times, or the counterterrorism chief who turned his into a book: Ka-pow! With varying degrees of ferocity, the dissidents faced what amounted to a right-wing wilding, complete with official and unofficial accusations of criminality, opportunism, grandstanding, ineptitude, sour grapes, partisanship, racism, greed, uncertain sexuality, and, of course, being a junketeer whose luxe foreign travels were arranged by his wife the CIA agent.

Each time this sort of thing happened, you could feel the administration's muscle at work--it got results. In 2002, after Kuo's old boss, former Faith-Based Initiative chief John DiIulio, was describing their White House as a politics-obsessed place with "a complete lack of a policy apparatus," the furious response prompted a groveling apology from the burly University of Pennsylvania professor. Soon after, Bush's spokesman called the article "baseless and groundless," and DiIulio issued a statement pronouncing himself "deeply remorseful." The allegations, DiIulio agreed, were "groundless and baseless." The spectacle drew comparisons to a Stalinist show trial.

Schaffer predicts a similar smack-down of Kuo after he appears on 60 Minutes tonight and the book is released tomorrow, but wonders whether a politically weakened lame duck White House can pull it off:

Kuo is scheduled to appear on "60 Minutes" Sunday night. By Monday, if Team Bush is still on its game, significant chunks of America should suspect that Kuo is an atheist, a money-grubber, a media whore, and the president of his local Hitler Youth chapter. By the end of the week, you should be hearing one of two sounds: Kuo's apology, or a very loud quacking noise.

I guess we'll see. Interestingly, kicking off the anti-Kuo chorus are some key leaders from the religious right who generally act as reliable administration operatives, such as Tony Perkins, James Dobson, and Charles W. Colson. The Washington Post reports that they will televise a rally to get people to vote Republican next month:

The book is being published at a pivotal moment not just for Republicans who are battling to maintain control of the House and Senate but also for conservative Christian voters, whose support for the GOP has dipped in recent polls.

At 7 p.m. Sunday, evangelical leaders including Perkins and Dobson plan to broadcast a 90-minute television special from a Boston church to hundreds of other churches across the country in an attempt to keep religious conservatives from sitting out the election.

Called "Liberty Sunday," it will "highlight specific cases and stories where people's religious liberties have been threatened because of homosexual activism and gay marriage in Massachusetts," said Family Research Council spokeswoman Bethanie Swendsen.

I'm quite curious about what else is in the Kuo book, and how well-documented it is. The administration's use of conservative religious voters has been, in my view, blatantly cynical - even if the president shares many of their views. It's hard not to expect Kuo's book to confirm the obvious - but confirming is a harder thing that simply stating it, and we'll have to read the actual book to find out.

How this story plays out, how it affects Kuo, and how voters respond remains to be seem.

Posted by John Whiteside at October 15, 2006 09:58 AM

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