23 November 2008

Back to shiver looking for a spine

Back in 2003, Jim Hightower spread Paul Keating's comment about Tom Delay far and wide:
... Here's how one of his own congressional constituents describes him: "Tom DeLay is a shiver looking for a spine to run up."
Of course, if one has no spine, there are few shivers he has to worry about.

I am no expert or a wonk in these matters. But something needs to be said about the rumor of cabinet appointments so far. For the most part, they appear to be short-term risk averse but with much long-term risk attached. This does not appear to be a plan of someone who hopes to set a new standard after eight years of nonsense, but rather someone who is looking for a couple of years comfortable coexistence before trying to run for office again. It is hard to pin this down as playing it safe or being spineless, yet, this is the impression I am getting. Of course, as one of the most overused cliches of football (both American and European variety) suggests, once a team is ahead, the worst strategy it can use is playing not to lose.

I suppose, these are some strong words. I find myself in a particularly odd spot because I was not a blindly overwhelmed Obama supporter who expected great things from his presidency. I simply expected that any team he appoints would be better than either one that they would replace or one that would follow John McCain into Washington.

With Bush administration members burrowing into the fabric of civil service (surprisingly easily, considering that they must be hired through the non-political branch), and the rumored cabinet members and associated managers so far largely being center-right politically, if not outright Republicans, it should still be possible to steer a progressive course (and I don't mean "progressive" as "ultra-liberal"), but that task is a bit more difficult than it would have been in past transitions. For all the whining from the Right that Obama is a Socialist, there is little in his selection process so far to suggest that there is even a hint of Socialism in his administration.

To take stock to date, so far, there have been rumors that appear solid when it comes to AG (DoJ), HHS, Treasury, OMB and DHS. The two at DoD, State and Commerce are still speculations, although the direction is clear. That still leaves Ag, ED, Interior, HUD, Transportation, Labor, VA, EPA and Trade Rep to be determined, as well as non-cabinet members of the NSC and the National Security Adviser (who does appear to have been chosen). There is no obligation to keep CIA, NSA and FBI directors either (not quite cabinet--especially with DHS taking over--but still important administrators). And some of the subcabinet positions may well be more important than others, although, obviously, it is not likely we'd hear about them prior to the cabinet coming together.

What's the assumption so far?
  • HRClinton at State (with Kerry and Richardson being common speculations earlier)
  • Holder as AG (with Edwards's career in an outhouse, he certainly was not going to be candidate and I have not heard many other names mentioned)
  • Geithner at Treasury (with Summers and Rubin as the shadows that were on nearly equal footing with him from the start)
  • Napolitano at DHS
  • Orszag at OMB
  • Gates remaining at DoD
  • Richardson at Commerce (assuming that State is taken)
  • Daschle at DHS
  • Brennan at CIA
I have no problem with Gates keeping his job--unless an obviously better candidate comes along, Gates is enough of a realist that he should mesh well with the new administration. Daschle--although close Bill Clinton ally in the past--is an Obama person who can put a stamp on healthcare reform. I know nothing about Orszag, except that he appears to be welcomed by a lot of people as very competent (and, considering his previous experience, that makes a lot of sense).

Richardson is a question mark. He appeared to be headed to the Senate without much of a fight, should he have chosen that route. He's been a solid administrator, except for some questions about his behavior toward women in the office. So his executive skills and diplomatic skills appear to be far better than his people skills. Fine, since I am not about to question his qualifications, as long as he keeps his hands to himself and his mouth shut, except when on task, I can live with him.

Not so for Summers, whose bad habits as the President of Harvard and past accounts of his management style at the Treasury suggest that he can't play with other children. Luckily, Geithner is is ahead of him for the post. Policy-wise, I defer to others' approval of Geithner. And I have nothing against Summers as a top policy adviser, which he would be as the head of th NEC. But I would rather not see him as a public face of the administration or in charge of substantial staff. Butting heads during meetings is his forte and if he does that in the privacy of policy meetings, so much the better.

Holder is his own person with experience at the DoJ under Bill Clinton, but I don't question his credentials. Even some conservative bloggers welcomed his potential appointment, although FNC and some of the more rabid popular bloggers have been dogging him on the Marc Rich pardon, Elian Gonzales and other inanities. That leaves HRC and Napolitano as the black sheep and Brennan as a big question mark.

I am not comfortable with HRC at State at all. She has the skills and the connection to pull off the external part of the job. HRC is not a bad person to send out globe-trotting as a messenger of good will. Not so obvious is her connection back home. Whose policy is she going to pursue? She can't easily go rogue on major policy points or in diplomatic situations, but how much pull will she have in determining this policy--will she defer to non-cabinet advisers when outvoted or will she stubbornly insist on her own measures?

Some have also questioned her management skills in large non-homogeneous enterprises, such as the Department of State. Her campaign, despite a number of successes, was essentially mismanaged (although much blame for that can be placed at the feet of other people, ultimately, HRC is responsible not only for hiring these people, but also for supervising them and agreeing with them). Her past attempt at a top-down healthcare reform was a dismal failure--and one cannot blame solely conservative opposition for that. Some of the proposals that the AMA criticized back in the 1990s included essentially deprofessionalizing some of the specialties, such as anestesiology and radiology, and handing the tasks to non-MD personnel, such as nurses and technicians. It's not just a question of the support staff being unskilled at the tasks that they would have to take over--that can be rectified with a gradual transition that includes proper training. But it would also have taken important diagnostic and complex treatment monitoring tasks from positions that carry greater responsibility to support staff that carries no formal responsibility because they generally don't make decisions. What's important here is not the details of the proposal, but how some of the larger issues, particularly cost reallocation, had been handled. Many of the solutions HRC's task force had come up with were worse than the problems they were trying to solve.

There is also the question of how HRC's departure would affect the Senate. It would not have an impact on party balance--NY governor is a Democrat and the state is highly unlikely to elect a Republican, unless the Democratic candidate self-destructed during the campaign. Judging from the 2008 election results, New Yorker got over Elliott Spitzer very quickly, so there is no long-term party image damage. But there is a question of caucus leadership. The same reasons that make her well-known diplomatically (not just as a former First Spouse) also promote her to leadership role in the Senate. Although the somewhat arcane Senate rules prevent her from chairing any committees, she can have leadership role for the whole caucus (cannot happen without any of the present leadership giving up their positions, of course, but that may happen). And, barring any major issues, the position in the Senate is safe for as long as she wants it. Despite the Republicans initially foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of Hillary Clinton, she has proved to be skilled at her job and popular with constituents (the qualities that are usually absent in Senators who lose their positions--such as Sununu, DeWine, Smith, Dole, etc.). And, after two terms, unseating a Senator becomes virtually impossible (although, of course, it has happened).

On the balance, it seems that HRC would be better off staying put and the country would be better for it. It also appears that the Democratic Party would benefit greatly from HRC not going to State and bringing a gaggle of supporters with her.

Napolitano's issues are quite different. She is certainly a very competent administrator and executive. Her state AG, gubernatorial and US Attorney experience is unquestioned. She would bring long-term immigration experience to DHS--something that would be refreshing after six years of trying to solve all immigration problems with a couple of labor busts and a border fence to the South. But that's where the benefits end.

Napolitano brings legal and immigration experience to the table in a department that is also responsible for national security infrastructure, intelligence and much else that falls outside the relatively narrow issue of immigration. And, although it would be good to have a lawyer who is actually inclined to follow the law at the helm, she would have to rely on others to take charge of the intelligence operations. Taking over a department that's been subservient to the Vice-President's office for some time, this is a very weak position to take and is likely to lead to internal problems within the chain of command.

But a far greater problem is strategic long-term position that is undermined by Napolitano leaving her state. She has long been considered a strong Senatorial candidate--either against McCain in 2010 or against Kyl two years later. Strategically, it is probably better to have her run against Kyl, although it is also possible, had she run as a popular governor in 2010, McCain would change his mind and retire rather than stay in a tough fight with a potential loss loming.

At the same time Arizona has no Lt. Governor, so a Republican Secretary of State would ascend to the governorship. Even if Brewer remains as loony as she is claimed to be in her Michelle-Bachmann-like zeal, she would have a boost of incumbency in the next elections and, barring any major disasters, would be favored to win in a state that is much closer than it used to be but is still heavily Republican. That means two bad outcomes for the Democrats--losing a governorship and a potential Senate seat in one swoop. Some continue to argue that Napolitano need not be entrenched at DHS, but it would be ridiculous to assume that she would only take over for two years only to run for Senate in 2010 (especially since much of the second year would be lost to campaigning, even if she did not resign immediately--which is unlikely). And, if she stays there the full four, to run in 2012, voters have short memories and she would not be as popular then as she is now. It was different in New Hampshire this year with Shaheen and Sununu. Sununu was a one-term, weak Senator who got elected essentially on nepotism earlier, and Shaheen was not running as a governor, having lost to Sununu earlier, but getting a boost from the general Republican depression and Obama's popularity in the state. And it was still close enough to conclude that Sununu might have recovered in different cycle. McCain and Kyl are both strong, long-term Senators, who are popular in their own right.

So chosing Napolitano hurts the Democratic Party both at the state and the national level, unless, of course, the Pary has concluded that Napolitano could not win a Senate seat in either case. Even then, her leaving makes reclaiming the governorship that much tougher. This is even worse, considering that 1) Arizona will be gaining in its Congressional delegation following the 2010 census and 2) there will be no gubernatorial counterbalance to Republican-dominant legislature when the district boundaries are redrawn. So, potentially, this may cost the Democrats not only a governorship and a Senate seat, but also a couple of House seats. Given other redistricting dynamics for the next cycle, this is not good news.

In some ways, Richardson is in a similar predicament. It is widely considered that the next Senate seat will be his for the taking. Even with the state leaning Democratic over the last few election cycles, Senate races are often unpredictable when the personalities involved are less dominant. So Richardson's absense would give an element of risk into that race as well. On the other hand, it would be much easier for him to abandon his Commerce post than it would be for Napolitano to leave DHS without major consequences. So I am not as concerned about Richardson overall as I am about Napolitano.

That brings the last questionable name on the list--Brennan. Andrew Sullivan cites Ambinder (and is, in turn, quoted by Kevin Drum):
Marc reports the Republican, former chief-of-staff for George Tenet (who authorized war crimes as CIA head), admirer of Dick Cheney, CEO of the company one of whose contract employees improperly accessed Obama's and McCain's passports, and defender of renditions and "enhanced interrogations" is still Obama's front-runner pick to head the CIA. No, I'm not making this up. ... Why is such a man even considered for the post under Obama? This man cannot end the taint of Bush-Cheney. He was Bush-Cheney.
Even though Sullivan identified once concession that Brennan made--having been involved in politicizing intelligence leading up to the Iraq War--it does not appear to be enough to balance his continued defense of torture and other slip-ups that clearly align him with the more radical of the Cheney stooges. Sullivan summarizes his opposition by essentially comparing the potential nomination to keeping Gates at the DoD:
It's fine not to uproot the entire agency and to have some continuity. But for Obama to appoint a Bush-Cheney apologist to the CIA? How on earth did this idea get this far?
On the other hand, Brennan was one of the earliest intelligence wonks to jump on the Obama bandwagon and got positive reviews along the way.
"The world is a very complicated place and there are not always easy solutions to a lot of the problems out there," says John Brennan, a top Obama intelligence advisor and former senior CIA official who co-founded the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and the National Counterterrorism Center, a post-9/11 effort to integrate the US government's terror threat intelligence. "If you look at the world in black and white, you miss a lot of the subtleties out there. 'Either with us or against'—the world is not divided into good and evil a lot of time. Despite America's military might, a lot of these problems do not lend themselves to kinetic solutions"—i.e. the use of force.
In this context, Brennan may not be a surprise. But in a profession where one has to adapt to potentially hostile surroundings to gather information, his resume does not inspire complete confidence. Did he exhibit a genuine preference for Obama brand of policy or was he simply one of the first rats jumping off the sinking ship, hoping not to get caught up in maelstroem.

So this is three highly questionable candidates out of a rather short list of nominations that are either "finalized" or are close to it. That still leaves eight cabinet posts and a few associated positions open, but it does not look promising. Education, Labor and Transportation are often token positions, wasted on some questionable characters--for example, the Bush appointments were, initially, two token minorities with minimal qualifications for the jobs and a token carry-over Democrat, moved from another department. When one nominee went bust, she was replaced with a wife of then-Senate Majority Leader. Sure, these deparments are far more central to the Democratic message than to Republican, but it does not mean that the appointments will be more meaningful (remember Romer?).

On the balance, it is clear that the cabinet, as it is shaping so far, shows far more grown ups and far less sycophancy than its predecessor in any of its incarnations. But this does not mean that the selections are well-balanced or deliver a clear positive message. It further appears that the nominees proposed so far may well have a negative long-term strategic impact on the Democratic Party, which is not what most of us want to hear this year.

UPDATE (11/26, early AM):
The other name previously mentioned next to Summers and Geithner was that of Robert Rubin. Well, since the weekend, it's become mud. The sage of Clintonomics has been tied to Citigroup for over a decade. With the Citi near-collapse and subsequent bailout, Rubin's star is suddenly not shining quite as brightly.

Brennan now is toast! He has removed his name from the hat, serving a parting shot on his critics who have been trying to tie him to the Bush administration policies. His bitterness does not exactly make him look innocent--I am more convinced now that he was an opportunist who thought he could jump on the winning team before anyone else did and snatch a piece of the prize. OK, no schadenfreude here, but I was not exactly rooting for him to get to the top. It seems far safer for the rest of us (the rest of the world, that is) if he remains an adviser. Perhaps, in a couple of years, when the "other" appointment does not work out--and, assuming that Brennan will stick around in some capacity--he may rise back to the top, vindicated. But if he ends up in some Blackwater-style operation instead, we can all compare notes later.

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