Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cabinets and Presidential agendas

This post by Matt Yglesias is very smart, and his point makes a lot of intuitive sense: appoint people to your advisory positions in the Cabinet as a sop to moderates, then use the political cover of those appointments to enact the liberal agenda you ran on. Note, too, that like Matt I am fairly confident that Barack Obama is going to be pursuing the kind of broad liberal policy platform that his mandate legitimizes. I think that Matt's reading of the Cabient situation specifically is troubled, though, for several reasons.

The first is that we have to recent history to suggest that Cabinet appointments might really demonstrate the kind of agenda a president is pursuing. Bush appointed, from my perspective, a Cabinet filled with extremists, and he got an extremist administration. Appoint Don Rumsfeld to Secretary of Defense, and you get a "new warfare" ideologue who agitates for widespread American conflict in the Middle East. Appoint John Ashcroft to Attorney General, and you get an arch-conservative legalist who raids medical marijuana dispensaries with SWAT teams. You appoint people, usually, who you think will work to enforce the kind of administration you've imagined. (A traditional conservative might point out that the agenda of the Bush administration had little to nothing to do with conservatism.)

People forget now, but following the debacle of the Florida recount and the popular vote/electoral college split, the conventional wisdom was that the Bush administration would have to run a conciliatory, centrist government. I had a friend who had just graduated with a political science degree at the end of 2000, and a bunch of his professors was telling him, a Democrat, that he should see if he could get work in DC-- surely, the new administration would be reaching out to Democrats to shore up Bush's limited claim to any kind of a popular mandate. Instead, the Republicans proceeded to appoint one of the most partisan and hard line Cabinets imaginable, and began pursuing policies in keeping with that partisanship. I would invite those who would point to Colin Powell that, yes, Powell has a centrist reputation in the United States, and deservedly so. But I've often wanted people to think a little bit more about the international side of appointing Powell to be the country's chief diplomat: a lifelong military man who had successfully prosecuted a war against Iraq. It may have been a centrist play nationally, but abroad, I think another message was sent.

Incidentally, I find the common postmortem analysis of the Bush administration's initial partisanship and extremity to be correct: believing that they had a one-term wonder, the Republicans moved to enact as partisan an agenda as possible within the four years they had, without having to worry about the moderating influence of an eventual reelection campaign. Then, when 9/11 fell in their laps, the calculus changed.

The second reason I am not convinced that Cabinet appointments amount to more of a political sop than to a genuine message about policy is that Cabinet positions matter. The notion of the Cabinet as a board of advisers is generally correct, but misleading. Individual cabinet members have a great deal of sway both in the appointment or hiring of the people who make up their agencies, and in how the policies of those agencies are enforced. (The Department of Justice being the most important and clear example.) What's more... advice matters. Presidents do tend to listen to their Cabinets, and a President hearing from a mostly moderate Cabinet is going to hear different things than he would from a mostly liberal Cabinet.

Really, it's impossible to say exactly what is going to happen. I am with Matt in thinking that we need to privilege what the President is actually telling us as far as predicting his agenda. But we need to remain vigilant and hold this President to the same kind of critical analysis and distrust that we did to the last one. Presidential elections can be kind of cruel. I've spent two years getting to like Barack Obama, learning about him, assessing his qualifications and his policy positions, trying to maneuver through the political spin and find the measure of the man. I think Daniel Larison is absolutely correct in pointing out that the left wasn't, actually, always in the tank for Obama. Personally, I had a very hard time getting past his demagoguery concerning Iran, although that was tempered by the fact that I had almost no alternatives to choose from on that issue. But eventually, you choose your guy or gal, and you stick by that person. It's not unwavering or unconditional support, but it's pretty close, because elections are tough, and to win them, we become advocates for our side.

Once the election is won, though, and our candidate takes office, he becomes a leader. And a leader in a democratic society, I mean a real democratic society, is not your friend. You can respect them and you can support them when appropriate and you can even admire them on a personal level. But all of that is only as strong as the next decision. Loyalty to leaders has to be as strong as tissue paper, and we all need to be ready to walk away from our support at a moment's notice. It's what democracy requires. The most powerful office in the world is also the most corrupting influence in the world. That's why it's a little bit cruel, because you spend more than a year convincing yourself that you like someone, that they will be a leader you can be proud of, an you vote for them and talk them up and maybe even volunteer for them, and you find it's a pleasant feeling, particularly after the last 8 years. But then that person becomes another politcian, and your duty requires you to let go of love.


James said...

Loyalty to leaders has to be as strong as tissue paper, and we all need to be ready to walk away from our support at a moment's notice. It's what democracy requires.

Just as I was thinking "Ah, aren't liberals streets ahead of their conservative counterparts when it comes to attitudes to hold towards leaders?" You follow through with this:

The most powerful office in the world is also the most corrupting influence in the world.

That sort of pessimism and scepticism towards power is something which is sorely missing from much of the right. Or rather, was sorely missing prior to them losing their President. No doubt they shall reclaim that but it does seem to me that conservatism's adoration of hierarchy seems to leave it rather less well equipped than liberalism's adoration of liberty when it comes to sussing up the actions of leaders.

Whereas conservatives have a firm framework for respecting the boss and holding to his line liberals have much less.

JeffB said...

My take is that Obama is less interested in enacting a liberal or conservative agenda than he is in furthering an effective governing agenda, where what works is more important than what color state it will appeal to.