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A Bush strategist blazes his own trail

Once a part of the inner circle, Matthew Dowd broke sharply away and began a new quest.

November 14, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

WIMBERLY, TEXAS — Matthew Dowd knows sorrow and loss. He has been divorced twice. A daughter died two months after she was born. And then there is the added heartbreak -- a word he uses -- of his split with President Bush.

Dowd, 46, is one of the nation's leading political strategists, a onetime Democrat who switched sides to help put Bush in the White House, then win a second term. He spent years shaping and promoting Bush's policies -- policies that Dowd now views with a mixture of anguish and contempt.

He began expressing his disillusionment, tentatively at first, at a UC Berkeley conference in January. Since then, he has grown more forceful.

On the administration's response to the Sept. 11 attacks: "I asked, 'Why aren't we doing bonds, war bonds? Why aren't we asking the country to do something instead of just . . . go shopping and get back on airplanes?'"

On the White House stand against same-sex marriage: "Why are we having the federal government get involved? . . . Does a thing limiting someone's rights and aimed at a particular constituency belong in the U.S. Constitution?"

On the war in Iraq: "I guess somebody would make the argument, well, the Iraq war was about defending ourselves. But it seems an awfully huge stretch these days to say that."

With a rueful laugh and, at one point, a catch in his throat, Dowd offered a lengthy account of his break with Bush during hours of conversation at his 18-acre ranch in the green Hill Country outside Austin. He puffed a cigar, and then another, as the fading sun glinted off the Blanco River. A CD player cycled through sacred music and country songs.

Dowd is not the first Bush ally to part with the administration. Former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill contributed to a book that likened the president at cabinet meetings to a "blind man in a roomful of deaf people." John J. Dilulio Jr., who led the White House office of faith-based initiatives, left with a shot at "Mayberry Machiavellis." Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who once led U.S. forces in Iraq, accused the administration of going to war with a "catastrophically flawed" plan.

But Dowd was a part of Bush's political inner circle, enjoying a degree of power and intimacy that made his criticism all the more unexpected -- and hurtful to those still close to the president, many of whom are Dowd's friends.

"I care about him as a human being," said Mark McKinnon, a former Dowd business partner who produced Bush's campaign ads and sometimes bicycles with the president. "The problem was not just what he said, but that he never voiced any of those concerns directly to people he was supposed to be advising."

Dowd responded that he shared his feelings with McKinnon and others close to Bush more than once before going public.

In speaking out, Dowd has not only strained personal relationships but raised larger questions about loyalty in the political realm. Is he obliged to stand by his old boss, whose success made Dowd one of the most sought-after consultants in the campaign business? Or does he owe it to the country to openly dissent, even if he didn't do so from the start?

The answer, for Dowd, is simple, even if his life these days is less so. "When you're a public advocate of something in the high-profile way that I was, and all of a sudden it doesn't turn out the way you thought, the counterweight is not to just sit quietly and let it go," Dowd said. "I had to say something in a high-profile way."

His disenchantment with the president built over several years. Dowd went public at a Berkeley seminar on the 2006 California governor's race; Dowd was both a senior advisor to the Republican National Committee, where he landed after Bush took office, and a top strategist for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reelection effort. It was a question about the president that set Dowd off and, looking back, liberated him.

"Do you lose sleep at night knowing that you gave this country probably the worst administration we've ever had?" asked a young man. "I mean, have you thought about maybe trying to save your soul by calling for impeachment?"

Dowd tensed and leaned forward. Rather than defend Bush, he spoke of the oldest of his three sons, an Army language specialist then facing deployment to Iraq. "Now, am I a person who stays up at night thinking about that? Yeah. . . . Do we have hopes and dreams and disappointments? . . . Yes," Dowd said.

But when things don't turn out as hoped "it does not mean that you somehow have to walk down the street in a hair shirt with a sign that says, 'Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me,' " he said. "We move on."

Dowd now sees the confrontation as "a gift [that] gave me the opportunity to start expressing things more and more publicly."

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