Matthew Dowd's not-so-miraculous conversion

Is the former Bush pollster a true believer turned disillusioned critic, or was he an opportunist from the get-go?

Published April 5, 2007 11:19AM (EDT)

As he tells it, Matthew Dowd's conversion from true believer in George W. Bush to disenchanted critic is a chapter in a "Pilgrim's Progress" through the wilderness of this world. His long quest for agape, as related to a New York Times reporter, begins about a decade ago with Dowd in the Slough of Despond, "frustrated about Washington, the inability for people to get stuff done and bridge divides," when suddenly a great-hearted figure appears who lights a candle in the darkness. "It's almost like you fall in love," Dowd professed. But his dream turns to dross and his faith into doubt. Bush is not the deliverer but the deceiver. "I had finally come to the conclusion that maybe all these things along do add up. That it's not the same, it's not the person I thought." But Dowd is unsure whether Bush is a changed man or a captive. "He's become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in."

Whether Bush has strayed or been led astray, the fellowship he promised is lost. Dowd does not offer to save Bush, but only claims to seek salvation himself. His trials and tribulations -- "one of Mr. Dowd's premature twin daughters died, he was divorced, and he watched his oldest son prepare for deployment to Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist fluent in Arabic," according to the Times -- have seared his soul. But these are elements of a story, in which the afflicted Dowd appears utterly passive -- not the full story.

He contemplates writing a public confession, an Op-Ed piece, that a man he has wronged, Sen. John Kerry, is virtuous. He would title his article of atonement "Kerry Was Right," but decides not to submit it. He considers joining the protesters in a march against the Iraq war, but once again cannot bring himself to put his foot forward. Yet the pilgrim continues on his upward path. "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." Following his inner map guides him away from world-weary vanity. "I wouldn't be surprised if I wasn't walking around in Africa or South America doing something that was like mission work," Dowd told the Times.

As the pollster who helped bring Bush to power and sustained him there, Dowd is expert in framing stories, and he has framed his own as a classic conversion narrative. But the political consultant cleanses his story of politics, so it is hardly surprising that there are gaps in the telling and characters missing. Dowd does not offer any explanation of why Bush has changed, only how he, Dowd, perceives the changes. Bush has become remote and untouchable, but he is not the hidden God, Deus Absconditus. Who has seduced Bush into his seclusion? Who has absconded with him? His Satanic Majesty, almost always present in conversion stories, is absent here. Dowd says nothing about Karl Rove, for to bring Rove into the narrative would alter it. Dowd attempts to blot out the politics with the personal, his soul-searching obscuring his poll taking. Yet he provided the diagrams for Rove's machinations, the bright signs for Rove's dark wonders.

The political man's refusal to explain the politics behind his turnabout has given his former friends the opening to assign him even deeper personal motives to drain it of political sting. White House counselor Dan Bartlett, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" April 1, described Dowd as someone on "a personal journey" and consumed with "personal turmoil." Rather than burn him as a heretic in an auto-da-fé, the White House dismisses him as a head case -- Dowd's "Pilgrim's Progress" turned into "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

A more mundane version of Dowd's story begins with a little-known pollster in a state capital, laboring for a political party headed for seemingly perpetual minority status. Attached to the conservative wing of the Texas Democrats, Dowd was a partner in the Austin-based Public Strategies P.R. firm. Along with one of his partners, media consultant Mark McKinnon, he seamlessly shifted into the presidential campaign of Gov. Bush.

Dowd has given a couple of accounts of this painless conversion, attributing it variously to the shining impression made by Bush and the persuasive skills of Rove, whom he came to know well in the hothouse atmosphere of Austin. McKinnon told his friends he wasn't a Republican, but a "Bush guy," while Dowd, for his part, simply left it at that he had become a "Bush Republican." Had they not jumped at the main chance that materialized, they would have been mired as provincial losers. Instead, they chose fame and fortune. Observers viewed their leap as symbolic of Bush's unusual capacity for bipartisanship.

Bush's loss of the popular majority by 543,895 votes in the 2000 election was a shock to his political advisors and prompted an internal rethinking of his strategy. During the Florida contest and before the Supreme Court delivered the presidency to Bush, Dowd wrote a confidential memo to Rove that analyzed data from the recent vote and argued that there was no significant center in the electorate. "Dowd's analysis destroyed the rationale for Bush to govern as 'a uniter, not a divider,'" wrote Thomas Edsall in his book "Building Red America." Bush's confected campaign persona as a "compassionate conservative" was suddenly discarded. The "architect," as Bush called Rove, had an architect. Bush's brain had an outsourced brain. Rove's and Bush's radical imperatives derived from Dowd's conclusions.

With Bush as president, Dowd was put on the Republican National Committee payroll and became an intimate participant in White House strategy sessions. Bush and the Republicans now exploited divisive wedge issues and tactics with a vengeance. After Sept. 11, 2001, fear was bundled with loathing, the terrorist threat from abroad conflated with the gay menace within. By 2004, relying on Dowd's numbers, Republicans made gay marriage the most salient social issue, exceeding abortion and gun control in its inflammatory potential to mobilize conservatives. Dowd prescribed the strategy for targeting of Republican base voters' "anger points," as GOP consultants called them, for maximum turnout.

The "war on terror" was the glue that held the Bush message together. In the political rinse cycle, Dowd transformed the disinformation justifying the Iraq war into platitudinous Republican talking points. In the interviews he granted, Dowd repeated them effortlessly. "Events in Iraq," he told National Public Radio during the Republican Convention in September 2004, "and removing Saddam Hussein is all part of the war on terror. You can't separate out removing a brutal dictator from a place that harbored terrorists from the war on terror." One plus one equals three; the clock struck 13.

Dowd packaged his vicious tactics as nothing more than the application of basic advertising technique. His slicing and dicing of wedge issues was no such thing, he explained. He was, he said, just creating a new Republican "brand." After Rove executed Dowd's carefully calculated targeting to produce Bush's narrow victory in 2004, Dowd was triumphant. "Issues don't matter in presidential campaigns," he exulted in 2005, "it's your brand values that matter." For Dowd, facts didn't matter either, only "brand" identity.

Contaminating his rival's brand was as vital as enhancing his own. Dowd had been central in formulating the 2002 midterm campaign that zeroed in on the Democrats' patriotism. In 2004, he and Rove crafted the negative attack on Kerry as a "flip-flopper." Asked about the TV ads ripping Kerry, Dowd said on Sept. 22, 2004, on CNN, "I think it's totally tasteful. And the American public is going to be fine with it." He also blithely defended the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth defamation of Kerry's sterling Vietnam War record. "I think the Swift boat ads were part of that dialogue," he said in a 2005 PBS "Frontline" documentary, "but it was more important in that they pointed out something about John Kerry, which is, all this guy's talking about is his Vietnam record. What does that have to do with the war on terror?"

Dowd believed he was designing a permanent Republican majority, but, working alongside Rove, his short-term winning tactics built enormous pressure that produced an implosion. During the 2006 midterm campaign that lost the Republicans control of Congress, Dowd worked as a consultant for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican running as a virtual liberal Democrat. "I think we should design campaigns that appeal not to 51 percent of the people," Dowd told the Times, "but bring the country together as a whole."

But Dowd neither detailed nor did the Times mention his consulting work in the campaign last year of Richard DeVos, billionaire heir of the Amway fortune, for governor of Michigan. DeVos is a zealous follower of and major donor to the most extreme organizations of the religious right. His campaign against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was marked by nasty ads falsely stating: "Under Governor Granholm's administration, you can stay on welfare as long as you want." These weren't a new paradigm but old racial code words.

Dowd is perhaps the most peripheral member of the original Texas inner circle that brought Bush to power. (The nimble McKinnon is now working for John McCain's presidential campaign, not as a Republican, of course, but as a McCain guy.) Unlike Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is Bush's creature pure and simple, Dowd is both creature and creator. His self-involved and tortuous explanation of his disillusionment helps cast light on the banality of his motives in his original defection from Democrat to Bush Republican. However traumatic his private drama, he appears fundamentally the same opportunist, a point subtly driven home by those who know him well.

"I've known him for a while," said President Bush, asked at his press conference on Tuesday about Dowd. Bush stayed on message, reducing Dowd's defection to being overwrought about his son's shipping out to Iraq: "I understand his anguish over war. I understand that this is an emotional issue for Matthew." The Washington Post added: "Dowd, contacted later by e-mail, chose not to engage in a debate. He had said his piece. 'I don't have anything to add,' he wrote."

Dowd can have no riposte to the White House insinuation that he is a troubled person unless he breaks through his own rigidly constructed tale of conversion. There is also the danger that he could be seen as handling himself like one of his clients. His corporate communications firm, ViaNovo -- "new way" in Latin, like the Christian religion itself -- advertises on its Web site that it specializes in "high-stakes positioning."

Dowd has much to add to history as an eyewitness. What was Rove's involvement in the independent expenditure negative campaign against Sen. John McCain in the Republican South Carolina primary of 2000? White House chief of staff Andrew Card said in 2002 about the propaganda campaign for the Iraq war, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." What was the marketing done to hone various rationales for the invasion of Iraq? In the 2004 campaign, exactly how was homosexuality targeted? What were the links between the Bush campaign and the Swift-boating of John Kerry? What polling was performed to determine how to discredit Kerry's war record? After the indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, what polls did Dowd take to inform White House positioning? These are only a few of the questions that Dowd can illuminate with his special knowledge. But so far, his conversion lacks a confession.

As Dowd acts out his spiritual crisis, he maintains his silence about what he knows, a strange kind of post-betrayal omertà. It's more than a little late for the turncoat to continue playing the loyalist, wanting it both ways, unless Dowd truly means what he says about "mission work," and he is preparing to disappear for the next 10 years in Africa for the HIV/AIDS initiative of the Clinton Foundation.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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