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Reviewed by Amy E. Black


Faith in Politics

What can we learn from David Kuo's memoir of a Christian in the corridors of power?

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Which leads us to the second "book" within Tempting Faith, the insider tell–all that is capturing so much of the media attention. Recounting his two–year stint as the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Faith–Based and Community Initiatives, Kuo criticizes President Bush and his White House apparatus for failing to deliver on their promises and—especially—for viewing the faith–based initiative as nothing more than a political tool.

Kuo's insider account rarely authenticates sources. Instead, he quotes liberally from speeches and books, recounts entire conversations, and even quotes internal documents (such as an e–mail from his boss, Jim Towey, to his superiors) with nary an attribution. The same author who admitted engaging in disingenuous behavior when it served his own ends now describes private meetings and virtually says, "trust me." In the same pages that call Christians to practice compassion and to honor the name of Jesus, the author is attributing troubling motivations to his former superiors and revealing confidences from closed–door meetings.

Concerns about the genre aside, how does Kuo's inside story stack up? During much of the time that Kuo was working in the faith–based office, two political science colleagues and I were devoting the better part of two years researching and writing a book about the initiative. Social scientists like to resolve puzzles. Ours was this: Presidential candidates Bush and Gore held similar positions favoring increased government partnership with faith–based organizations. How did this bipartisan agreement change so quickly to bitter partisan discord? Or more simply, what happened to Bush's promised faith–based initiative? In the end, our research revealed that the initiative was largely a legislative failure but a muted administrative success.

In more than forty interviews with key players, including Kuo, his two bosses, and his boss' boss, we discovered many consistent themes. The office was created in haste during a truncated transition; White House senior staff were not engaged on the issue; House Republicans circumvented the White House and pursued goals too sweeping and too partisan; the hiring discrimination issue galvanized opposition from the left. Above all, in interview after interview, I was told that Bush deeply cared about the issue—even if his staff and much of his base did not. Even the strongest opponents of the bill recognized this; one described the depth of his commitment as "frightening."

While many elements of Kuo's tale resonate with what my colleagues and I learned in our research, the narratives diverge significantly on two central points. The first is over the separation of powers, or, more specifically, the nature of presidential power. From Kuo's vantage point, if the president really wants something, he has enough power to make it happen. Yet, according to traditional political science, the president's powers are limited, and they are most limited on issues that involve the federal budget. In foreign policy and diplomacy, the president has almost unilateral power, but when it comes to spending government dollars, Congress effectively holds the purse strings. In Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership, a book that remains central to presidential studies more than four decades later, Richard Neustadt describes presidential power as the power to persuade and as the power to bargain. Presidents do not necessarily have command and control, especially over domestic policy.

President Bush's faith–based initiative included three parts: (1) removal of government barriers that deny faith–based organizations the opportunity to compete for federal grants, (2) helping smaller, less experienced organizations gain the tools needed to compete for grants (the so–called compassion capital fund), and (3) reforming the tax code to encourage charitable giving. Kuo focuses most of his attention on the third piece, tax reform. He is correct that (at least until August 17, 2006, when a version of these reforms finally became law) charitable tax cuts failed. But he omits some important pieces of the story, most notably the quick turn from record budget surpluses to budget deficits. Congress passed an initial wave of Bush tax cuts, but they had little interest in cutting more. Could Bush have tried to persuade Congress with a heavier hand? Sure. Would it have made a difference? Probably not. Presidents, like all politicians, have to choose their battles. Pragmatic presidents will determine their priority of issues by, at least in part, weighing the chance of success.

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