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November 3, 2008
With the Transition,
the Placemen Cometh
After the deluge, the deluge. That is right. The upheaval in Washington
that follows every presidential campaign where the incumbent, or his
vice president, is not re-elected is massive and affects the routine
governance of every aspect of the nation.
Essentially, it is a period during which much of the federal government
is rudderless. Scholars, like John Fortier of the American Enterprise
Institute, say it is also a period during which the United States is
more than usually vulnerable to its enemies and to crises.
Although the framework for transition is put in place before elections,
it is immediately afterwards that everything begins to roll. The very
first appointments the new president makes are not to the Cabinet but to
his transition team, which bears the brunt of seeing that a new
government takes over without chaos or endangerment of the country.
Think of General Electric. It is a large, diversified company with
interests in locomotives, jet engines, nuclear power plants, consumer
goods, finance and broadcasting. Now, think of what would happen if all
of the company's executives, from the chairman down to the shop-floor
supervisors, were to leave within days of each other. You would expect
decision-making to be frozen, and GE franchises to be under attack from
competitors. Yet, on a grander scale, that is what will happen in
Washington in the weeks ahead.
a hypothetical remaking of GE, the stockholders and their new chief
executive officer are free to hire whomever they wish, and to shuffle
them without the media blowing a fuse. The president of the United
States does not have that luxury. His key managers – all 1,100 – have to
be confirmed by the Senate. But first, they have to be vetted by the
newly-installed White House staff. Assuming they will take the jobs, the
candidates are cleared informally with their home-state senators. Then
it is on to confirmation, and all that has come to entail.
For critical Cabinet posts, such as Defense, State, Treasury and the
Office of Management and Budget, the Senate likes to give the president
his choice of executive. But in contentious political times, nothing is
guaranteed in the confirmation process.
Some 7,000 government jobs change hands with a new administration, and
the process among the president's inner circle can be bloody. Those who
labored in the campaign believe they are entitled to first dibs. The
best thing a new president can do is identify his chief of staff early
on, and let this appointee shield him from contention among those who
helped elect the candidate.
administration is inevitably shaped by the people a president knew
before he was elected. Ronald Reagan had a major advantage. As the
former governor of California, and an established national figure,
Reagan's Rolodex was bulging. Jimmy Carter's Rolodex was not bulging,
nor was Bill Clinton's. George W. Bush had a fat Rolodex, but it was
stuffed with the names of his father's operatives.
Each appointment tends to initiate the next one. Caspar Weinberger and
George Shultz both worked for the Bechtel Corporation, as did others who
served in the Reagan Administration, including Kenneth Davis, deputy
secretary of Energy.
Many ambitious people with institutional backgrounds are poised to serve
in government, and they have been advising the campaigns in the hope
that this will buy them favor. These potential placemen are poised in
their institutions to take up high office in Washington, whether they
are at Harvard University, the Rand Corporation, The Brookings
Institution or one of the plethora of new think tanks around the city.
The poet Lord Byron said of sex, which he knew a thing or two about,
that the pleasure was momentary, the position ridiculous and the scandal
damnable. Of politically appointed service, it might be said that the
pay is meager, the scrutiny intolerable and the damage considerable.
Consider Colin Powell, Scooter Libby, Paul O'Neill and Paul Wolfowitz.
Yet still they want to come to Washington, and a huge new crop has to be
harvested under pressure between now and January 20, 2009.
Presidents do not manage very much, but they do appoint talent
and validate the decisions and policies of those they appoint. They also
must guard against rogue appointees, like Ollie North and Bob Haldeman,
who can hurt and embarrass an administration.
© 2008 North Star
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