16 May 2004

The Big Picture

Too many pundits—and people who should know better; too damned many pundits know little at all, regardless of their political bigotry (and, with only a handful of exceptions, that's what it takes to be a "pundit" these days: less willingness to take prisoners, or treat them fairly, than the Khmer Rouge)—are concentrating on the "flipper attack" on Kerry, and to a lesser extent Bush. I, for one, would rather have someone in office whose mind can be changed by facts than a doctrinaire anything. I realize that sounds rather strange for someone who rejects both the Republican and Democratic Parties as too conservative; but that's beside the point. Many of the most significant actions and policies established by the presidential party in this century have resulted from a change of mind/heart on a given issue. Lyndon Johnson's move from his 1958 comments to his support of the Civil Rights Act is an obvious example, but there are many others.

One thing that we should all have learned from the WMD controversy is that sound policy does not get made when "advisors" withhold "inconvenient" information from decisionmakers. This is why the Karl Roves of this world—who have that power, but do not have to face Senate confirmation—are so dangerous. Contemporary electoral coverage is myopically restricted to the candidates themselves, with very little examination of the people with whom they surround themselves—and upon whom the burden of 95% of government will fall. In his autobiography My American Journey, Colin Powell tells the story of the "dog-shooting research" that was torpedoed instanteously by an appointed official. Not only is this the kind of matter that would take attention away from the Chief Executive, but the specific response demonstrates the kind of power based upon appearances that these subordinate officials have. The Secretary in question rejected the program because of its context: a nation of pet-owners would not stand for shooting dogs for research upon battlefield wounds, even if the dogs would otherwise be euthanized. The value of the research was not at all the issue.

Unfortunately, there is a major impediment in this country to such evaluations: It is technically a violation of election law to name a "shadow cabinet" as the Opposition has in many parliamentary countries, most obviously in England and Germany. This is a function of our "advice and consent of the Senate" process. For that reason, one can really get an accurate assessment only of an incumbent President seeking reelection. It is certainly possible that the group Kerry would assemble could be less competent and honest than the group assembled by George III; but I think he'd have to try pretty hard. Perhaps this argues for establishing limited terms for certain kinds of offices, such as United States Attorneys, that are in one sense policymaking and in another administrative. I, for one, would love to see USAs given a seven-year term with a possible single reappointment, staggered across the country so that no two adjacent positions would ordinarily be due for reappointment at the same time; and similarly with the US Marshall in each district. That's just one example.

The mid-level party operatives with whom I dealt most of the time when I was in Washington are now becoming the senior people and advisors to the visible officeholders. Perhaps my belief in the Officer's Code made me ill-equipped to evaluate their worth in a political context; perhaps it does still; but it didn't harm my ability to judge their integrity—or, too often, the absence of it. Acton was too optimistic in his assessment. It is not power itself that corrupts; it is the process of obtaining and consolidating it that does.