Wall between political operatives, agencies crumbling

Critics say White House staffers have crossed the line in pushing Republican interests at agencies.

Monica Goodling learned everything she needed to know about screening candidates for Justice Department jobs during her year as an opposition researcher at the Republican National Committee. If President Bush's critics were looking for a simple testimonial to illustrate how the White House managed to push GOP-centered political considerations deep into the executive branch, Goodling's House testimony last week provided it.

Or maybe just one more example. Democratic committee chairmen are digging into the small type of government contracts that benefited Bush administration friends. They want to know more about White House briefings that encouraged workers in federal agencies to help the GOP. And they want to know much more about White House e-mails written on Republican National Committee accounts -- especially the ones that seem to have gone missing.

Goodling explained to lawmakers that her RNC training, including poring over old news clippings and checking voter registrations to identify like-minded Republicans, proved helpful in her subsequent job as an adviser to the attorney general, since she was one of three or four people who screened new hires in the Justice Department. But more important, Goodling told Congress, was her ability after seven years with the Bush team to ferret out -- with detailed guidance from those above her -- the attributes her bosses at Justice and the White House valued in prospective prosecutors.

"I do acknowledge that I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions," Goodling told the House Judiciary Committee after securing immunity from federal prosecution, "and I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions."

To the administration's critics, stuffing the lower ranks of the Justice Department with conservative Republicans fits right in with their theory that top-level U.S. attorneys were fired because they weren't furthering the electoral prospects of the GOP -- an unsavory sort of executive engineering that damaged morale, undercut the administration's credibility, and possibly interfered with delivery of justice.

The ultimate focus of the various investigations is the White House Office of Political Affairs, under the supervision of Karl Rove, Bush's deputy chief of staff and senior political adviser. Goodling didn't recall talking directly to Rove, but she described having regular conversations with his aides about finding attorneys who would be "ideologically compatible" with the president.

It isn't just Democrats who say that the linkage between White House staffers, government functions, and the interests of the Republican Party has become too tight.

"I'm appalled," Republican political consultant Ed Rollins says of the heavy-handed partisan politics that have been revealed in this year's congressional oversight hearings. Rollins was political affairs director in the Reagan administration -- the first one to have such a government-funded office.

In Rollins's day, firewalls kept the political operatives from having direct contact with executive departments -- particularly Justice.

"What's happened with this administration is that too many people came in, like the Karl Roves, who had no experience in government," Rollins says. "Campaigns are very separate things, where you're always trying to think politically."

Political scientists who have studied how presidents organize their administrations say that the imposition of campaign-inspired political controls inside the executive branch evolved throughout the 20th century.

"Institutionalized politics in the White House has been around at least since FDR expanded the Executive Office of the President and brought his close advisers into the White House," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who has written extensively on the subject.

President Reagan was the first to put a name to a specialized office that became known as "political affairs." The office was the contact point for all the constituencies that supported Reagan's re-election as well as his role as head of his party. President Clinton elevated the head of his political affairs office to Cabinet-level status, with a seat among senior staff and policy advisers.

Bush's creation of a division for Rove, called the Office of Strategic Initiatives, went the next step, establishing a centralized GOP watchtower over just about all facets of government with one eye on promoting the Republican Party and the other on ways to clobber Democrats.

"Bush has prioritized politics more than any other president because he's expanded the White House Office and all the wings in it," Tenpas said.

Bush's defenders argue that politics are afoot in Washington, all right -- the kind practiced by the opposition party during an emotional and unpopular war, as it prepares for a wide-open presidential election in 2008. The same Democrats, they point out, never worked up such a lather over the 103 fundraising coffees hosted inside the Clinton White House, or the hundreds of Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers for generous Democratic donors as Clinton geared up for re-election.

For Democrats now in the congressional majority, "everything is just media-driven" and the organizing principle is, " 'What story can we create today to make the Republicans look bad?' " said longtime Republican strategist Charlie Black, who is close to both Presidents Bush. Rove is "the guy to blame who stole the [2000] election," he added.

Rewards, and Punishments

On George W. Bush's first full day on the job, and again on his 99th day in the Oval Office in 2001, the White House sent Rove, who had transitioned from campaign manager to West Wing senior adviser, to sit in NBC's "Meet the Press" hot seat. During the interviews, Rove wove together Bush's new agenda and his conservative political disposition to respond to questions from moderator Tim Russert.

Asked about Bush's regulatory intentions to weaken his predecessor's limits on arsenic in drinking water, Rove knew that the question was aimed at the president's perceived anti-environmentalism. And because Rove grew up in Utah and the West, he thought he had a firsthand understanding of how arsenic could be a naturally occurring substance in some water supplies and how tougher regulation would not be appreciated by industry or the energy sector.

"This limit of 10 [parts per billion] was arrived at by using a test group of malnourished Taiwanese farmers who drank water that had naturally occurring arsenic concentrations of between 100 and 500 parts per billion," Rove said. "So we're going to ... make a determination on the basis of sound science. And it's not going to take us eight years to get it done. We're going to get it done this year."

These were pithy sound bites -- "malnourished Taiwanese farmers" was the sort of zinger a political adviser would dream up -- but as it turned out, the public disagreed with Bush on the substantive question of allowable poisons in drinking water, and he wound up adopting the Clinton arsenic rule. By August of his first year, Bush was saying he wished he could get a do-over on arsenic.

Those Rove interviews, which wandered over an expanse of policy questions, were memorable, said Doug Sosnik, who was Clinton's political affairs director in the White House and later his senior adviser, because Rove "was transparent and open about the politics driving the policy." Based on his own experience, Sosnik remembers thinking that such openness was "a big mistake."

"For anyone to say there isn't politics in the White House is ridiculous," Sosnik continued, conceding that the Clinton White House justly earned a reputation for being overtly political while governing. Clinton's campaign finance activities, which sparked federal and congressional investigations, were an example of "pushing all the way to the line without crossing it," he said.

The evolution from the Clinton political operation to the Bush shop holds distinctions with real differences, Clinton's former aides argue.

"The problem with this White House is that they conflated the policy and political roles that Rove had so that they are indistinguishable," Sosnik said. "They took the letter of the law and pushed it to at least the line, if not over it, and in the process certainly violated the spirit of it. They got used to it; that was the culture. And they had a supplicant Congress that was their witness protection program. It was a culture where everyone understood the reward system."

That culture -- and Bush's ambition to consolidate executive power -- has helped erode Bush's credibility and his powers to persuade, suggested Leon Panetta, who was Clinton's second chief of staff, his former budget director, and for 17 years before that a Democratic member of Congress from California. "Every president has that political instinct, but you cannot make everything you do the result of political motivation because you lose the ability to persuade the American people that substantively it is in their interest," he said.

Clinton learned, after his first two nominees were shot down, that the Justice Department was particularly volatile. As numerous aides confided to reporters at the time, Clinton would have loved to replace Attorney General Janet Reno but did not dare. She ended up sticking around for eight years.

"When it comes to the Justice Department, it has to operate in a separate sphere," Panetta added. "You cannot have an attorney general and a Justice Department act as if they're part of the Republican National Committee."

That lesson comes courtesy of John Mitchell. As a reward for Mitchell's prowess as manager of Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, the president named him attorney general in 1969. By 1977, Mitchell was in prison for his Watergate crimes.

"The Guy They Love to Hate"

The White House response to the chorus of critics, most of them Democrats, is threefold. Politics, it says, is part of governing. Second, the president expects Rove to practice politics because that's his role in the White House, and Bush believes that administration critics take a peculiar pleasure in making Rove a target. And third, the administration may have entertained political considerations before removing the U.S. attorneys, but there was no political interference with their work.

"People use the word 'politics' in strange ways these days," deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "I don't think that's a bad word. To suggest that we should not think about the politics of an issue in terms of the outcome would be foolish."

To the White House, attacks on Rove are at once understandable and still puzzling. "There's this obsession with Karl that is bordering on the weird, and almost the disturbing," Perino said. "He's the guy they love to hate. He's the president's political adviser, so I don't know how they can say what's on the spectrum of 'too political.' "

Aiming Democratic oversight at Rove's behavior is another way of going after the president's remaining hard-core base of conservative support, because Rove is the liaison to that part of Bush's world, said presidential historian Al Felzenberg, who is a former Heritage Foundation fellow, an author, and the former spokesman for the 9/11 commission.

"I have never seen this kind of vitriol over a staff member," he said. "I think the Democrats have decided to focus on Rove because they feel that if they knock the Rove leg out from under the administration, the entire administration will collapse. I think what's driving it is that he's successful. But the legend of Karl Rove comes more from his opponents than it does from him. I don't hear Republicans saying he's indispensable."

"They've Hurt This President"

Presidents have long kept their closest political advisers within arm's reach -- Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on Harry Hopkins, for example, and President Truman turned to Clark Clifford -- but the institutional White House changes evolved in tandem with the decline of the national political parties as power bases and the rise of candidate-centered campaigns, largely inspired by the shift from caucuses to presidential primaries. Presidents adapted to the shifting re-election terrain by expanding the White House staff and creating teams of political experts to strengthen White House control of executive agencies and to curry votes.

Nixon made substantial organizational changes to the White House aimed at consolidating his reach over Cabinet departments and agencies, as well as his influence over Congress. In elaborate secrecy, Nixon hatched a reorganization plan in 1970 that resulted in the creation of a Domestic Council, as well as the Office of Management and Budget.

Nixon had already asserted his command of foreign policy through Henry Kissinger, and with his reorganization he ensured that every document on domestic affairs and every decision about domestic policy would take place in the West Wing under the supervision of counselor John Ehrlichman.

After Nixon went down in Watergate, the next several presidents formalized the structures that support their role as head of a political party. This brought civil servants under the protection of the Hatch Act, which forbids manipulation by political bosses, and led to safeguards, such as financial disclosure forms.

Reagan established the Office of Political Affairs in the White House and brought in campaign aides Lyn Nofziger and Rollins to run it. As Nofziger recalled before his death, James Baker came to him after Reagan's victory and said, "I want somebody to handle politics, on the political end, as an assistant to the president for political affairs."

Nofziger did not remain in government for long before turning the office over to Rollins, but his initial job description was to maintain contact with the RNC, the state committees, and politically important allies of the president around the country. Once inside the White House, Nofziger told the University of Virginia during a lengthy oral history interview, he realized he wanted to expand his reach into the selection of personnel because Reagan's team "had no concept of the political part of government. They were looking for competent people. I tried to explain to them that the first thing you do is get loyal people, and competence is a bonus."

The power of the advisers depends on the relationships they share with the president, according to interviews with some who have held the positions and according to published studies. For example, President George H.W. Bush was closer to his longtime independent political adviser, Robert Teeter, than he was to his White House political staff. And Bush found in James Baker a hybrid adviser who was accomplished in governing as a Cabinet secretary yet also powerful as a political adviser who ran campaigns and managed the White House staff.

Clinton sought the political advice of James Carville and Paul Begala long after they helped him get elected in 1992, but Carville said from the outset that he had no interest in hiring on with the White House staff. Begala eventually accepted a White House post, and was a senior Clinton adviser when the Monica Lewinsky story became public.

Bush pushed things further by building his White House structure around Rove, who commands a kingdom of 42 people. In addition to Rove's long-range strategic planning and supervision of the Office of Political Affairs, which has a staff of 10 people and direct ties to the RNC, his reach includes the White House offices of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. Rove also signs off on personnel picks and presidential appointments, and he has plenty to say about communications and legislation.

In 2005, Bush gave his political architect the add-on title of deputy chief of staff, handling policy. But a year ago, Bush's new chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, nominally trimmed Rove's hold over policy and said that Rove would focus his talents on the midterm elections.

Still, Rove maintains his mythological power by virtue of his ties to the president. Few in government have the standing to "hold him in check," Rollins said. The decisions made by Rove and his colleagues -- co-workers who have no desire or ability to reduce his influence -- have "hurt this president. And especially in dealing with a place like Justice, which should always have been a place of integrity," Rollins said.

On Guard

To save presidents from themselves and their clever advisers, White House history suggests that checks and balances are essential. Sticklers for policing the commingling of politics and governing are not always the most popular White House staff members. To make an impact they usually need forceful backing from the president, a tough chief of staff, or a vigilant White House counsel.

Rollins remembers that in the Reagan White House, the staff directory spelled out in black and white that no aide was permitted to speak to Justice Department headquarters or to independent agencies. "Only White House Counsel Fred Fielding talked to Justice," Rollins said. "We were very sensitive to the politics and the governing aspects of the game. I think it's all gotten blurred at this point in time."

In Bush's case with the fired U.S. attorneys, Rove aide Scott Jennings, a White House political deputy, thought nothing of using e-mail to contact the attorney general's counselors at Justice. Those communications were sent to the department from his political account at the RNC.

C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel under Bush's father, once infuriated James Baker, then secretary of State, by ginning up media pressure to force Baker to sell some stock that Gray believed posed a potential conflict that could embarrass the president. And eight months before the 1992 election, Gray tried to wall off George H.W. Bush's re-election campaign officials -- including Charlie Black and Fred Malek, men who maintained lucrative outside business relationships -- from high-level White House policy makers and from policy meetings.

Prompted by attack ads paid for by Pat Buchanan, a Bush opponent, Gray set up a communications system that funneled all contacts with the campaign team through then-Chief of Staff Samuel Skinner. Gray told reporters he wanted to make sure "they do not have the power to execute anything.... They are not making policy."

Panetta remembers, as chief of staff, threatening Clinton with his resignation if the president would not agree to a new firewall. At the time, Clinton thought he needed outside help from Dick Morris, a freewheeling Republican political consultant who was viewed with suspicion by most Democrats and especially by the White House staff. Panetta had discovered that Morris was secretly contacting Clinton's aides about policy issues, outside of the White House chain of command.

The chief of staff set Morris straight, barring him without exception, for example, from involvement in foreign policy. But he also had to lay down some law with his boss. "I told the president, 'I cannot act as your chief of staff in a situation where a political adviser is going to be interfering with my authority,' " Panetta recalled. He told Clinton that without such backing, he would lose a chief of staff. "And the president agreed. Clinton knew what Morris was like."

In or Out?

The Morris example is one reason presidents historically have found it more advantageous to put their closest political advisers on staff, giving them the authority and White House structure to influence events. Although Rove had been an outside political consultant to Bush when he served as Texas governor, he coveted a White House staff role when Bush was inaugurated. "This is what he dreamed of all his life," a former colleague said of Rove's ambitions to advise a president from the West Wing.

The good-government rationale for putting political advisers on the White House payroll is the checks on possible misbehavior: independent scrutiny of conflicts of interest, or any national security risks; application of ethics rules and requirements for annual financial disclosure; and a ban on post-employment lobbying, plus mandates to preserve presidential communications about official business.

In his 2000 book, The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond, political scientist Bradley Patterson wrote that political advisers who are volunteers or paid by others tend to spend their time trying to push information inside, to the Oval Office, while presidents' on-staff political advisers work to reach outside the White House to bring feedback to the president from various constituencies.

Because Reagan's aides thought of the president as a man who did not spend a lot of time talking politics, his Office of Political Affairs maintained a somewhat separatist air about its business around the White House. Rollins recalled that during Reagan's re-election campaign, the office effectively shut down and moved to the campaign. Fielding issued a memo that the White House staff could have no contact with the campaign other than through Rollins or Baker aide Margaret Tutwiler. "We kept very much at arm's length," he said.

The notion now seems quaint. "I always worried about doing damage to the president, which is the critical thing," Rollins said. Republicans controlled the Senate at the time, but Democrats controlled the House, and Rollins said he feared the harsh scrutiny of the opposing party, working with a vigorous Fourth Estate.

Congressional investigations are a powerful form of oversight. But if the president is in a strong position with the public, he can withstand the scrutiny.

More than three decades ago, Nixon's organizational changes and his expansion of the White House staff to a bloated 560 people raised alarms among Democrats in Congress. Lawmakers held hearings, examined the White House appropriations and a $1.5 million "Special Projects fund," and ordered up federal audits. They made close studies of where Nixon spent taxpayer dollars for political purposes, and Ralph Nader and Public Citizen filed suit to recover more than $10,000 paid to White House aides who they claimed were working for Nixon's re-election.

But at the time, Nixon's critics in Congress confessed to utter frustration that their complaints had little impact on the president. On the Senate floor in September 1970, Sen. Ralph Yarborough, D-Texas, assailed Nixon's jumbo-sized staff and observed that "apparently, there is a long-standing understanding that they do not question our appropriations request as it pertains to the Congress, and we do not stop their appropriations."

Critics of the Bush White House and its politicization of governance argue that self-policing has to be the first check on overreach, followed by external oversight -- from Congress, the courts, and an aggressive media. After that, remedies are up to the voters.

Political scientist Tenpas predicts that Bush's successor will balk at replicating the current model. "I think the Office of Strategic Initiatives will go," she said. "It was created for Rove, and I don't know who the next president is going to be, but he or she is not going to hire someone like Karl Rove."

The next president is more likely to search out "a hybrid," she said, meaning an adviser "with suitable skills to governing and campaigning."

The lesson after eight years with the Bush administration may be that hiding the political Wizard of Oz behind a sturdy curtain has advantages. "It is dangerous to reveal the degree to which you really care about politics if you're president," Tenpas added, "because the American people don't want to know the degree to which presidents care about polls, focus groups, strategists, and the political calculus for presidential actions."

And despite the White House condemnations of Democratic critics as consumed in their political theatrics, the president still feels the heat when the head of the opposing national party finds an opening to turn a White House aide into a juicy political target.

"The Bush White House continued to put partisan politics ahead of the interests of the American people when it fired U.S. attorneys and inserted politics into ongoing criminal prosecutions," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in March while calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's resignation. "Karl Rove should pack his bags and go, too. His type of leadership doesn't belong in the White House."