At the White House, One Man's Mistake or a Family Faux Pas?

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White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Media Director Karen Hughes

White House chief of staff Andrew Card: official floater of test balloons, or first to fall afoul of the Bush White House's vaunted "message discipline"?

That was the question being traded by inside-the-Beltway types Thursday after USA Today reported that President Bush had decided not to eliminate two offices created by former president Bill Clinton: the Office of National AIDS Policy and the Office on the President's Initiative for One America (designed to promote positive race relations).

On Wednesday, USA Today reported just the opposite, though Card was careful to emphasize that closing the offices did not mean the administration had lost interest in the issues — rather that the President was exercising his right to restructure. "The presumption that a White House bureaucracy looks the same from administration to administration is a myth," he said.

Apparently, Card wasn't quite careful enough. By early Wednesday morning, the West Wing was deluged with calls from angry activists concerned that the administration was backing away from its pledges of unity and "healing the wounds" of racism.

Bush, who got just 9 percent of the nation's black vote in November, moved quickly to mollify his critics. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer appeared late Wednesday morning to assure everyone that the President had no plans to close either office. Fleischer called Card's comments "a misunderstanding," adding that while Card was quoted correctly, he was not up to date on this decision. "He made a mistake," said Fleischer. "It happens."

Somebody's light went on

It happens all right, though the consensus is that it probably didn't happen this time. Almost no one, from White House correspondents to GOP advisers, is buying the "mistake" line. Instead, this is widely perceived as a case of political short-sightedness that the Bush team was able to pull away from before it caused any real damage. "Somebody woke up over there and said, 'Whoa, wait a second. This is contrary to Bush being the unifier he wants to be,'" Republican strategist Jim Innocenzi told Thursday’s USA Today.

And now, the usual course of politics takes over: Card will suffer briefly for his "misunderstanding," while Bush et al. skirt any real trouble. In fact, the President probably owes thanks to Card, who, apart from his apparent willingness to fall on his sword, has, perhaps inadvertently, shown the administration the path to take on these two controversial topics — and that similarly touchy issues should be subject to more of a look-before-you-leap examination in the future.