WASHINGTON -- The overwrought reaction to last week's resignation of John DiIulio, the Democratic social scientist in charge of President Bush's faith-based initiative, is usually evoked only when a presidential aide departs in disgrace. Actually, DiIulio's problem was not his performance but the liberal establishment's hostility to the program he tried to run.
From the moment the University of Pennsylvania professor entered the White House, his imminent departure was predicted. When he quit after only six months, the event was interpreted as proof of the Republican president's inability to reach beyond the country club. Liberal clergyman Barry Lynn, adamantly opposed to the initiative, claimed the White House had sold out to "the religious right." In fact, DiIulio was resigning mainly because of health problems that are more serious than is publicly acknowledged.
Whatever the cause for his resignation, the furor over one brilliant though eccentric intellectual obscures what's really going on. By pushing federal money into religious channels to help the poor, Bush hopes to end big business' stubborn refusal to contribute to faith-based institutions. That could open the spigot of vastly more plentiful private funds and menace the government social service bureaucracy, threatening triumphant secularists in the cultural war.
George W. Bush is no cultural warrior, but he understands as well as Barry Lynn that this is no garden-variety Washington battle. The president has told associates that his tax cut followed Republican tradition while his education reform sought to pre-empt Democrats. The faith-based initiative is seen by Bush as his signature issue that can change America.
It was widely assumed during the 2000 campaign that this pivotal program would be headed by Stephen Goldsmith, who, as the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, made a national reputation for innovation. Goldsmith was on board early in Bush's presidential run, but his aggressive style did not suit the candidate.
After the election, Bush went in a very different direction by choosing a non-political academic who had just voted for Al Gore. Bush was reaching out for bipartisan help following the Florida recount, and DiIulio was to be a principal Democratic missionary.
The choice was always wrought with danger. Inheriting staffers who had expected to be working for Goldsmith did not help DiIulio. He lived up to his reputation for disorganization and arrogance, reflected in his failure to return telephone calls. His gratuitous public opposition to Bush's proposed repeal of the estate tax did no harm, but his attack on conservative Christians was counterproductive. DiIulio appeared to be telling his friends on the left that he had not sold out just because he was working for a Republican.
Although it would be an exaggeration to say DiIulio learned to love the White House, he and Bush political adviser Karl Rove did become allies. It is doubtful, however, whether DiIulio was a net plus. Certainly, as the faith-based bill passed the House on a party-line vote with only 14 Democratic supporters, the professor did not provide much help.
Some supposed allies from the left have proved to be embarrassments. The Rev. Eugene Rivers, DiIulio's fellow Philadelphian, greeted his resignation with flamboyant demagoguery: "The departure of John DiIulio means George Bush officially becomes the president of white America." According to sources close to DiIulio, he had become disaffected with Rivers before his departure.
It is no better than an even bet that DiIulio's friend Sen. Joseph Lieberman will help the Bush plan in the Senate. Lieberman, ambitious for national leadership, has to decide whether he can risk the disfavor of the secularists who dominate the Democratic Party by supporting a Republican's faith-based plan.
DiIulio will be gone in another month or so, likely to be replaced by White House policy aide (and 2000 campaign operative) John Bridgeland. While he understands as fully as DiIulio what is at stake in the cultural war, longtime Republican functionary Bridgeland will not be a distraction providing ammunition for the president's secularist enemies. George W. Bush might ponder whether six months ago he should have put his most important innovation in the hands of a trusted supporter instead of somebody who voted for his opponent.