Inside George W. Bush's inner circle, there are a couple of cardinal rules. Be discreet. Be loyal to the boss, regardless of whether the boss is loyal to you. For more than a month now, Matthew Dowd—Bush's pollster in 2000 and his chief strategist in 2004—hasn't just been breaking the rules; he's been shattering them to pieces.
Some of Dowd's comments were private ones; some were very public, such as his interview with The New York Times that appeared on Sunday. All of them returned to a single theme of "gut values," as detailed in his recent book, "Applebee's America." Dowd's thesis is that George W. Bush lost his relationship with voters—mostly, but not entirely, because of Iraq—and can never get it back.
"The problem is that his gut-level bond with the American public has been seriously damaged and maybe lost," Dowd wrote in Texas Monthly last month. The pollster, a lifelong Democrat, explained how he switched parties because he thought that Bush could reach across the aisle. "Now, near the end of his presidency, when many of us thought we would have helped solve the problem of polarization, we're in an even more polarized place," he wrote.
Dowd's decision to go public about his misgivings with the president wasn't entirely a surprise to those in the Bush orbit. He had spoken privately with friends and former colleagues of his discontent with White House policies, especially the war in Iraq, and had hinted at his angst publicly.
But Dowd's interview with The New York Times last weekend still took many on Team Bush by surprise—if only for the venue he chose to give voice to his discontent. "It's not unusual to disagree with someone you've worked for, but there's a code you abide by, and that is that you communicate your problems privately," says one former Bush adviser, who admits he has not always seen eye to eye with the White House. "We get paid for our work ... If someone is seeking absolution, they should go to confession and see a priest, not confess to The New York Times. Or [they should] give the money back."
Dowd himself says the reaction to his public criticism has been more positive than he expected. "Lots of Republicans and Democrats agree with me, and independents," he told NEWSWEEK. "They all want our discourse improved—and have been disappointed in the last few years."
The official White House position is that Dowd's journey has been shaped by his personal life, not Bush's political failures, as Dowd suggests. Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, told CBS's Bob Schieffer on Sunday that Dowd's position was a question of personal emotions. "He himself has acknowledged that he's going through a lot of personal turmoil," Bartlett said. "But also, he has a son who is soon to be deployed to Iraq. That could only impact a parent's mind as they think through these issues. I say that only in the sense that I know it's something that weighs heavily on him."
In fact, Dowd's public position has been more defensive than critical about the war. In January, Dowd, who worked for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election effort in 2006, spoke at a University of California, Berkeley, forum on the state's gubernatorial race. During the question-and-answer session that followed, a young audience member stood up and asked Dowd and Steve Schmidt, a fellow Bush adviser who ran Schwarzenegger's campaign, about their involvement in the president's 2004 re-election race. "I was wondering, do you lose sleep at night knowing that you gave this country probably the worst administration we've ever had?" the man said, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported the event on its state politics blog. "When you look into the eyes of young people who have to live in this country, what goes through your mind? I mean, have you thought about trying to save your soul by calling for impeachment?"
There was an awkward pause. Schmidt said nothing. A UC-Berkeley professor tried to move on to the next question, but Dowd insisted on responding. "I think your assumption about where people have lived their lives, and what they've done, and why they've done it, what their intentions are, and what they're not, I think it's best that we ask people questions ... instead of making allegations and judgments about people before you even know their story," Dowd said. "I have a 21-year-son who's in the Army and who is about to be deployed. Am I a person who stays up at night thinking about that? Yeah, I do stay up at night thinking about that."
When the man tried to interrupt, Dowd kept talking. "We all do things in life because we think they're the right thing. And I think it's better off in this country that we keep—even if I disagree with whoever you're supporting ... whatever they're doing—do they make mistakes? Do we have hopes and dreams and disappointments and all of that thing in life? Yeah," Dowd said. "But you know what? When you do something, and you do it for the right reason, and you think it's best for the country, and things don't always turn out the exact way that you think they're going to do, [that] does not mean that you somehow have to walk down the street in a hair shirt, and with a sign that says, 'Forgive Me, Forgive Me, Forgive Me.' We move on, and we do what's best in life. And that's really what life's about."
Where does a former Bushie move on to? Dowd told The New York Times that the only candidate that appealed to him was Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat who stunned the party this week by raising almost as much cash in the first quarter as the front runner, Hillary Clinton.
He's not the only former Bush adviser to feel excited by Obama. Mark McKinnon, Bush's friend and admaker, told MSNBC's Tucker Carlson last year that he was wowed by Obama. "I think Barack Obama is one of the most exciting politicians to come along in a long time," he said. "And I'd encourage anybody who is curious about him to read his book, because it's deeply human, deeply thoughtful, and says a lot about his experience, which in a way, sort of, captures the entire American psyche and experience in one man, which is really interesting, given race and politics."
It's unusual to hear such loyal Bush allies speak so effusively about any rival to the throne—let alone a Democrat. McKinnon, after all, has already signed up with McCain's 2008 campaign. Then again, both he and Dowd were Democrats before they fell in love with the relatively young political outsider who promised to change the tone of American politics. There's plenty of time for such dreamers to switch back.