You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Defector

Matthew Dowd, the world's wussiest turncoat

"It's amazing," Matthew Dowd told The New York Times's Jim Rutenberg. "In five years, I've only traveled 300 feet, but it feels like I've gone around the world, where my head is." Broken-hearted over the destruction he helped foist on the country when he helped sell voters on George W. Bush, Dowd now talks about needing to make things right in the world. As his fellow political guns for hire sign up with candidates ahead of next year's elections, Dowd is contemplating trading in his politico's shiv for a missionary's bible. By the time his old boss leaves office, he told Rutenberg, he may well be feeding the hungry in Africa or South America. "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 don't turn out the way they should have," Dowd said. "Just being quiet is not an option when I was so publicly advocating an election."

The melancholy Dowd who crawled on the carpet on the front page of Sunday's Times was a far cry from the cocksure strategist who twice helped Bush microtarget his way into the White House. Where he once smeared critics as possibly treacherous and certainly wussy, Dowd now wishes Bush wouldn't be so "bubbled in." Where he once trumpeted presidential steadfastness as the ultimate virtue, Dowd now wants Bush to heed the verdict of the people and get us out of Iraq. And though his polling ought to have given Dowd an opportunity to note the phenomenon from the beginning, he now regrets the way the president has polarized the country.

Dowd may be the first inner-ring Bushie to break with the administration, but he is hardly the first political strategist to make such a move. In laying out his disappointments, he joined a venerable tradition in American politics: The repentant hatchet-man. Like Lee Atwater apologizing from his deathbed for Willie Horton, he now wants to be more than just a guy who got another guy elected. As was the case with his contrite predecessor, Dowd has had his share of personal reversals--a death, a divorce--that helped him see the light. And there's a whiff of opportunism to his conversion, too: It's easy to bemoan the weakened Bush of 2007, and there's nothing like having a son about to ship out to Iraq to focus the mind on the evils of war. But it ultimately is hard not to be just a bit empathetic for a guy who now sees his life's work as a mistake.

So: Off to the Congo Basin with a bushel of penicillin, right?

In fact, it would be a lot more satisfying to watch Dowd make amends by pulling a Mother Theresa if he were a truly vile huckster, a dirty-tricks mastermind who smeared adopters of Bangladeshi babies and the like. But Dowd has never been cast in the role of a Bushie Darth Vader, an evil genius wooing the purportedly amiable Texas governor to the dark side. And, fittingly, his Sunday breast-beating wasn't over nasty tactics or negative ads, the misdeeds that Atwater wanted to expurgate before meeting his maker. Rather, in a novel twist for a campaign pro, Dowd was dissenting on policy. Unlike Atwater when he ripped the bark off Michael Dukakis in order to save the nation from furloughed black rapists, Dowd really meant it when he sold the nation a uniter, not a divider. Not only is he not evil, he's no genius, either.

But if buying into a candidate's spin is Dowd's only sin, it hardly requires repentance through exile among the wretched of the Earth. If Dowd really wants to restore that global balance he told Rutenberg about, he might take all those skills for which Bush et al have paid him handsomely, and turn them to some cause he now believes in--anti-war, or anti-Bush, or pro-Obama, or whatever it happens to be. It doesn't have the narrative glamour of setting sail for Africa, but it might actually do some good.

In the Times, though, Dowd seemed gun-shy about any new political combat (or, at least, any combat beyond talking about his views of Bush on the most valuable piece of real estate in American journalism). He said he didn't dare join a march against the war. Instead of entering the fray in service of more pleasing policies, he dreams of stepping away and talks about re-establishing "a level of gentleness in the world." Which allows him to act as if politics, not policy, lies at the root of his disappointment with Bush.

That's not the case, though. Dowd isn't flagellating himself over ordering up some toxic 30-second spot or coming up with some nasty, Zell Miller-type negative refrain, or some other aspect of the strategist's bailiwick. Instead, he's bummed that Bush has gone wrong on public policy. And, likewise, when historians write about the man Dowd helped empower, they won't write that he wasn't gentle enough in the political arena. They'll write that he was dead wrong on the biggest issues of the day. Reforming campaign warfare may mean changing human nature, but addressing those issues only requires something Dowd was once quite good at: engagement.

By Michael Currie Schaffer