Today’s Washington Post provides not only this week’s most disgusting story — Karl Vick’s wet kisses to Iranian president Ahmadinejad — but also its most ridiculous. The latter award goes to Peter Baker’s front page story, “White House Opens Door to Dissenters.” Baker’s thesis is that the Bush White House, in its “moment of weakness,” has abandoned its prior posture of “ignoring outside viewpoints” and has suddenly reached out to prominent figures who disagree with the President Bush. Baker cites the selection of a Treasury Secretary who opposed administration policy on global warming and a press secretary who found its domestic agenda less than satisfactory. At the same time, Baker questions whether these developments “reflect a genuine opening up for an insular White House.” He quotes extensively from administration critic Col. Larry Wilkinson, who demands “proof” that Bush is actually going to moderate his policies.
This story is sophomoric at so many levels it’s difficult to know where to begin. I was struck first by Baker’s lack of historical perspective. The premise is that the Bush administration is “insular.” But how does it compare in this regard with other administrations? Baker doesn’t say. Did President Clinton “open the door to dissenters?” I don’t think so. He opened the door to operatives like Dick Morris and David Gergen, but I doubt that they count as dissenters. Absent evidence that Bush behaves differently than most other presidents in this regard, there’s no story here other than the apparent unhappiness of Baker and his sources with administration policy–and that’s no story.
Second, Baker is unable to distinguish between listening to dissent and being swayed by it. There have been dissenters within the administration since day one. On economic policy, Paul O’Neill dissented. On foreign policy, Colin Powell (Wilkinson’s boss) had different views than Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The views and approaches of the latter group prevailed, but that doesn’t mean that Powell wasn’t heard. Baker suggests that Bush was “powerfully indifferent” to the views that did not prevail. But what is the evidence that Bush was indifferent, as opposed to unpersuaded? Other than Col. Wilkinson’s unhappiness that his former boss lost a power struggle, Baker presents none.
Finally, Baker errs to the extent he claims that Bush previously has refused to tolerate dissenters or to modify policy in response to the input of others. Baker finds it significant that Bush recently chose a Secretary of Treasury who disagrees with him on global warming. But how about the fact that Bush’s vice president has long disagreed with him about gay marriage? As to foreign policy, the Post’s own reports since the start of the second term suggest that Secretary Rice has succeeded (unfortunately, in my view) in fashioning a less aggressive and less go-it-alone foreign policy than the one that characterized the first administration, in which Rumsfeld and Cheney appeared to have more influence than they do now. For example, the administration has been deferential to Europe in its dealings with Iran. And keep in mind that Bush changed course on foreign policy early in his first term, after 9/11. At that point, the goal of spreading democracy in the Middle East moved from the back-burner (if even there) to the fore. Bush’s critics may regret this change of course, but the fact that it occurred contradicts Baker’s claim of insularity.
Some things regarding this adminstration haven’t changed, however. The Washington Post’s unwillingess to provide good faith coverage of it tops my list.