Capitol Hill gridlock could have been smashed by minimal West Wing effort. No administration since LBJ's has had a more successful legislative track record than this one. From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants. It never really wanted the "poor people stuff."
Not only were the tax items dropped from the 2001 tax relief bill, they were also ignored on numerous occasions when they could have been implemented. In December 2001, for instance, Sen. Daschle approached the Domestic Policy Council with an offer to pass a charity relief bill that contained many of the president's campaign tax incentive policies plus new money for the widely-popular and faith-based-friendly Social Services Block Grant. The White House legislative affairs office rolled their eyes while others on senior staff yawned. We had to leave the offer on the table.
They could afford to. Who was going to hold them accountable? Drug addicts, alcoholics, poor moms, struggling urban social service organizations, and pastors aren't quite the NRA. Charities haven't quite figured out the lobbying thing yet. More significantly, over time it became clearer that the White House didn't have to expend any political capital for pro-poor legislation. The initiative powerfully appealed to both conservative Christians and urban faith leaders - regardless of how much money was being appropriated.
Conservative Christian donors, faith leaders, and opinion makers grew to see the initiative as an embodiment of the president's own faith. Democratic opposition was understood as an attack on his personal faith. And since this community's most powerful leaders - men like James Dobson of Focus on the Family - weren't anti-poverty leaders, they didn't care about money. The Faith-Based Office was the cross around the White Houses' neck showing the president's own faith orientation. That was sufficient.
At the same time, the White House discovered urban faith leaders had been so neglected for so long that simple attention drew them in. Between 2002 and 2004 more than 15,000 white, Hispanic, and African-American religious and social service leaders attended free White House conferences on how to interact with the federal government. The meetings, held regularly in battleground states, were chock-full of vital information and gave thousands of groups invaluable information about government grants. They were hardly pep rallies for the President. But the conferences sent a resounding political message to all faith-oriented constituencies: President Bush cares about you.
Some liberal leaders have been quoted as saying the administration was looking to "buy minority votes." Nothing could be further from the truth. There wasn't enough money around to buy anyone. The conferences actually underscored how difficult it was to even get a grant. But by traveling across the country, giving useful information, and extending faith-based groups an open hand, powerful inroads were made to "non-traditional" supporters. One senior Republican leader walked into an early conference, stared wide-eyed at the room full of people of diverse ethnicities and said to me, "This is what Republicans have been dreaming about for 30 years." This is more damning of Democrats than anyone else. Where, exactly, has their faith outreach been for the last decade?
3) Liberal antipathy magnified the Initiative's accomplishments.
Secular liberal advocacy and interest groups attacked every little thing the faith initiative did. When Executive Orders were issued permitting an organization to simply display a cross or a Star of David, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called it "a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government." When we helped Boston's historic Old North Church (of Paul Revere fame) get new windows through a historic preservation grants program at the Department of the Interior, the clamor was the same. The net effect of all the jabbering was the appearance that great progress was being made.
Had these liberal groups or an alliance of charities held the White House accountable for how little was being done -- especially compared to what was promised -- there is no telling what might have happened...or what might still happen.
I left the White House in December 2003. By that time, I'd grown quite frustrated with White House and Congressional approaches to faith-based issues and I let those in power know it. Virtually everything I've written here I told to those above me more than a year ago. I hoped things would change. But frankly I didn't quite trust my own judgment. I'd survived an intense health crisis but quickly returned to work; I wondered if my grumpiness came from fatigue, stress, or something my doctors secretly did to me while I was sick. I left, and went fishing. Literally. I joined the professional bass fishing tour and spent a chunk of my time on my (loaned) Skeeter boat stalking fish, clearing my head, and pursuing God. I figured that with time, my anger would subside.
I was right. The anger did. The sadness hasn't.
I'm writing this now because there is a lot of time left. There are more budget supplementals to come for Social Security and Iraq totaling scores of billions. The White House can still do a great deal for the poor. It can add another few billion to insure every American child has health care. It could launch a program to simply eliminate hunger. Groups like America's Second Harvest have the plan. Bump up the Compassion Capital Fund to $500 million a year and be marveled by change.
Given new budget realities, climates, and conditions it is easy to dismiss these suggestions as naive. But no one ever said faith was easy...or cheap. In 2000, Gov. Bush said, "I know that economic growth is not the solution to every problem. A rising tide lifts many boats, but not all." He then went on to propose a new approach to those who were still stuck behind. The promises are still there and I am trying to keep the faith.