Derb, I’m with you on the clueless vs. Machiavellian question. I think anyone who has worked on the Hill or in the White House has to chuckle a little at conspiracy theories about Washington. The fact is, no one around here, in either party and on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, has nearly the information, ability, or competence to pull off any kind of complex four-steps-ahead type maneuver, and the system works in a way that makes it pretty much impossible to seriously try. Most of the time, people are barely managing to keep their heads above water amidst the rush of events and to respond to the latest unexpected and ridiculous screwup.
I’ll always remember riding into work on the train day after day when I was a (very) junior staffer in Newt Gingrich’s Speaker’s Office in 1998 and reading in the paper about how the Republican leadership in Congress was setting traps for Bill Clinton and playing some ingenious chess game with the impeachment process, and then arriving at work and finding that no one had any idea how things had gotten where they had or what would happen next. It was much the same working in the White House: All the various conspiracy theories (good and bad) were utterly laughable. Governing is terribly complicated and the people doing it, while often very intelligent, could never hope to master anything close to the command of contingency necessary to carry off any kind of conspiracy. They often can’t even manage to meet their actual responsibilities adequately in the face of the indescribably intense entropy of government. (That’s, by the way, one more reason why they should not be given trillions of dollars to throw around).
People in the opposition are always inclined to imagine that those in power are fantastically clever and every little thing happens for a reason. I find the Washington version of Hanlon’s Razor works better to explain things: Never attribute to cunning what can be adequately explained by incompetence.