Matthew Dowd: A Defector From The Bush Inner Circle

Most Americans probably never heard of Matthew Dowd. But his harsh criticisms of President Bush, published on Page One of the New York Times on Sunday, are rippling through the political world and causing quite a stir among bloggers of all stripes and among many Republicans in Washington.

The buzz is strong because Dowd is the first defector from Bush's political inner circle, which has always been known for its loyalty. He was Bush's chief strategist in the 2004 re-election campaign and a Bush adviser dating back to the president's years as governor of Texas. Dowd seemed to embody a central part of Bush's appeal in 2000--his track record of reaching out to the other side. Dowd said he was moved to change his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican specifically because he was so impressed with Governor Bush and his promise to be a "uniter not a divider" as president.

"I really like him, which is probably why I'm so disappointed in things," Dowd told the Times. He added: "I think he's become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in." Dowd now calls for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq--the position that Democratic nominee John Kerry took in 2004--and wants Bush to reach out to his critics rather than take a "my way or the highway" approach.

It's significant that Dowd chose the New York Times for his interview. He wanted to send a message that he was breaking big-time with his former boss, and going public with a newspaper that West Wing insiders consider an arch-critic of the administration did the trick.

Dowd's defection is causing Republican insiders to wonder whether this is the start of a larger rebellion against Bush by his former supporters. GOP insiders say this could easily happen among GOP members of Congress on the most important issue of the day: Iraq. If Bush's current buildup of combat troops fails to demonstrate strong progress by late summer, it's very possible that Republicans in the Senate and House will give up on the war effort and join Democrats in voting for a timetable for withdrawal.

Why did Dowd speak out now? "I'm a big believer that in part what we're called to do--to me, by God; other people call it karma--is to restore balance when things didn't turn out the way they should have," he said. "...Just being quiet is not an option when I was so publicly advocating an election." He admits that he has endured some personal tragedies in his recent years that have given him better perspective on life and politics: the death of one of his premature twin daughters; a divorce; and now the imminent departure of his oldest son Daniel to Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist.

Last year, he worked on the re-election campaign of GOP Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, who won a strong victory by reaching out to Democrats and calling for unity, rather than by mostly appealing to conservatives as Bush has done. Dowd was very pleased with Schwarzenegger's approach and today he says, "I do feel a calling of trying to re-establish a level of gentleness in the world."

This is antithetical to the tough-guy politics of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Bush's political architect.

Another formative event, not analyzed by the Times, was Dowd's co-authorship of a book, Applebee's America, which was published last year by Simon & Schuster. In describing the book, the publisher said, "People are desperate to connect with one another and be a part of a cause greater than themselves. They're tired of spin and sloganeering from political, business, and religious institutions that constantly fail them."

Anyone who read this book would have realized that Dowd had made a fundamental change in direction from the divide-and-conquer, govern-from-the-right strategy of Bush and Karl Rove. In the process of thinking about what's wrong with the country and writing that book, Dowd's distance from his former mentors grew wider and deeper.

ooking back, Dowd always seemed a bit different from the rest of the Bush crowd. His heart never seemed to be in attack politics, although he went along with it as part of the campaign. On another level, he didn't conform to insider ways of the Bushies and official Washington. He rarely dressed up for work, for example, preferring to wear jeans and casual shirts and, in cold weather, porkpie hats.

I had lunch with him and interviewed him many times, almost always "on background" where his name couldn't be use--theoretically so he could be more candid. Dowd was never interested in savaging the opposition, as Rove liked to do. Yet Dowd, 45, went with the flow and provided the media with a rich diet of analysis about the perceived shortcomings of the Democrats and, most notably, John Kerry.

Which is why it was striking that Dowd told the Times that he now thinks Kerry was right about Iraq--that America should begin pulling out its troops. This is in defiance of the stand taken by Bush, who is increasing U.S. troops in Iraq and insists on "victory."

Dowd's opposition to the war is being dismissed outright by White House officials. White House counselor Dan Bartlett, for example, said one reason for Dowd's turnabout is the fact that his son is being sent to Iraq and this, in Bartlett's mind, is affecting Dowd's judgment. That may be true, but the same thing is happening to millions of other Americans as the Iraq war continues and more lives are touched by the conflict.

By Kenneth T. Walsh