Back when Republicans still behaved like Republicans and conservatives actually believed in conservatism, those worthies aspired to bring us what they considered to be “good government.” Among other things, that meant appointing officials qualified to execute their positions, maintaining fiscal responsibility and insisting on public integrity. The reality frequently failed to fulfill those aspirations, of course, but at least they tried.
Now we live under a distorted facsimile of Republican conservatism with an attitude toward government that seems cynical and fundamentally nihilistic. This approach was summed up years ago by the right-wing commander and White House advisor Grover Norquist, when he explained his movement’s long-term objective: “My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Before drowning it, however, he and his comrades will pick its pockets.
Led by George W. Bush, today’s conservatives have elevated political patronage from a universal and tolerable peccadillo to a public menace. So intent are they on providing lucrative, comfortable federal jobs to the members of their own gang that they have come to resemble the old clubhouse Democrats of Tammany Hall. (The difference is that Tammany, for all its corruption, provided employment and benefits to the poor, while the Bush White House reserves its patronage for the well-fed and well-heeled.) The result is incompetence slicked over with arrogance and inexperience guided by ideology.
Sharing the outlook of Mr. Norquist, the President has scarcely tried to find capable managers for the federal bureaucracy. He shares the radical right-wing objective of dismantling government institutions rather than managing them properly and effectively. At every level, he appoints loyal hacks who possess no relevant qualifications, so long as they share his anti-government ideology.
This is like putting the termites in charge of repairing the house.
The latest example is David Safavian, who suddenly resigned last week as the top procurement official at the White House Office of Management and Budget. On Sept. 19, he was arrested by F.B.I. agents for lying about his involvement with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom he helped to obtain control over federal properties in the District of Columbia and Maryland. He is a former lobbyist whose partners in the private sector have included both Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Norquist.
No doubt the indicted Mr. Safavian is, like his friends, a true believer in drowning government. He had little or no administrative experience, but he had the right friends and the right-wing ideology. And like Tammany’s immortal George Washington Plunkitt, he saw his opportunities and took ’em.
Where such wanton patronage becomes terribly perilous, as we have recently learned, is in making appointments to agencies that are supposed to protect the nation. Everyone knows about the strange rise and fall of Michael D. (Brownie) Brown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But what of Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, who may well be as much to blame as Mr. Brown for the fumbled federal response to Hurricane Katrina?
Reporting by Knight-Ridder News Service shows that Mr. Chertoff froze when he ought to have mobilized government during the crucial hours leading up to the disaster. Among the reasons for his failure is that he, too, lacked qualifications for his job. He is a highly capable lawyer, which may have caused him to dither over legalistic questions of state and federal authority, but he has few credentials to run an enormous and critically important bureaucracy. From the perspective of the Bush White House, the outstanding item on Mr. Chertoff’s résumé is his partisan hatchet work on the Senate Whitewater Committee.
The Homeland Security chief certainly isn’t the only member of the Whitewater alumni club to find gainful employment under Mr. Bush. From James Rogan, the former impeachment manager appointed to run the Patent Office after losing his House seat, to Brett Kavanaugh, the former associate independent counsel who serves as staff secretary to the President, many who joined the G.O.P. jihad against the Clintons have since suckled on the federal teat.
Only days ago, the President named Julie Myers, a 36-year-old Republican attorney, to head the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency within Homeland Security. She used to be Mr. Chertoff’s chief of staff, and she also used to work for Kenneth Starr, but she has no discernible background that would enable her to oversee a law-enforcement agency with 20,000 employees and a $4 billion budget.
“I will seek to work with those who are more knowledgeable in this area, who know more than I do,” she said when asked how she expected to do her new job if confirmed by the Senate. Surely she meant to sound reassuring—but in an age of terror, why wouldn’t the President appoint someone “more knowledgeable” and more experienced to oversee our borders and ports?