We Are Seeing a Return of the Mayberry Machiavellis

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Consider the following three things that have happened in the past month:

  • After years of promising to repeal Obamacare, Republicans finally have the power to do it. But they’ve suddenly discovered that it’s going to be a lot harder than they thought.
  • President Trump kept his campaign promise to institute “extreme vetting” of refugees and visitors to the US, but the rollout was bungled so horribly that he’s losing support for it even among Republicans.
  • Last week Trump approved his first military operation. It was a disaster. The evidence here is a bit murky, but it suggests that the raid was vetted less stringently than usual because of Trump’s desire to cut through red tape and give the military more freedom to fight terrorism.

These are examples of what Barack Obama was talking about when he told Trump that “reality has a way of asserting itself.” More generally, it’s the result of a Republican Party that has been averse to policy for a very long time. They have principles and beliefs, but they don’t spend much time thinking hard about how to implement those principles in the most efficient possible way.

They believe that Obamacare is a failure. They believe that immigration should be shut down. They believe the military should be unleashed. But these are just bumper stickers. They haven’t spent much time developing serious policy responses on these topics because (a) that would give Democrats something concrete to attack, (b) their base likes bumper stickers, and (c) policy analysis has a habit of highlighting problems with ideological purity and pushing solutions toward the center.1

George W. Bush had the same problem with policy. Remember what John Dilulio said in his famous “Mayberry Machiavellis” letter to Ron Suskind?

In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. 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, nonstop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking — discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.

This problem is now a couple of decades old and shows no signs of abating. Quite the opposite: Donald Trump makes Bush look like an analytical genius. But even on their own terms, conservative rule is going to end disastrously if both Trump and congressional Republicans don’t spend a little more time on policy analysis and implementation issues. There are only so many disasters that even their own base will put up with.

1Democrats, arguably, have the opposite problem—too much regard for policy analysis—which is why lefties are often so contemptuous of them.

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"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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