Monday, September 26, 2005

That James Lee Witt Magic

Every time people compare recent FEMA chief and crony Michael Brown and Clinton’s successful FEMA chief James Lee Witt, I think “why shouldn’t this sort of thing be an issue in elections.” And then I think of one particular Gore flop during the 2000 election.

In early summer, Gore expressed his concern for hurricane victims and said he had personally gone to visit the disaster zones with FEMA chief James Lee Witt. Except he had never gone anywhere with Witt. It was a fib that continued the narrative of Gore having problems with the truth. As Al Franken cynically remarked, “here were scores of stories written about how Gore had lied about James Lee Witt. It was as if James Lee Witt had been the most popular man in the United States of America and Gore was lying to get some of that James Lee Witt magic to rub off on him.”

Of course, Gore had gone down there, with the Deputy Chief, and had gone to other zones with Witt. Clearly he messed up and should have fact-checked the detail, but nothing that huge. But the media was able to ride his exaggeration as another fib, and say he was trying to play off the popularity of a nationally respected public servant.

In a proper democracy, Gore should have been able to respond: well fine, are you going to keep Mr. Witt around Mr. Bush? If he’s such a popular national treasure, why are you going to fire his ass the first chance you get? And who will you replace him with? And either Bush would have answered “Joe Allabaugh” and lost the election, or answered someone competent and we would have gotten a chief that wouldn’t have run off at the first sign of Haliburton consulting and left his college roommate in charge. That’s how democracy should work.

This is not to bash the Bush administration. If they don’t have democratic accountability where they have to answer questions like that, the results of appointing campaign financiers over drab bureaucrats are pretty inevitable. But there should be democratic accountability.

Why didn’t Gore use this retort? Because in elections in America you don’t announce who your appointees will be before the election. Why is that? Ummm… dunno. It’s just tradition. Or rather, there are a lot of good reasons for the nominees who decide whether or not to announce to choose this path:
-For only one nominee to do it, it is risky. The good appointees aren’t that sexy to the media, while the bad appointees can lead to lots of bad news coverage and easy attacks.
-They’d rather be able to have a free hand to appoint whoever they want. No one wants democratic accountability on themselves, whether it’s so they have the freedom to appoint un-electable policy geniuses, or to appoint large campaign contributors.
-For the guys up top, it helps to keep people in line by always having rewards for the second-tier guys to be vying for.
-It’s a lot of work to vet a few hundred people in the middle of an election.
-It allows the incumbent President to avoid any discussions of his appointees’ screw ups.

Of course this is what they’ll decide to do if they don’t have to respond to voters over the issue. There are lots of policy issues too where if the politicians just didn’t have to answer the question and no one cared if they didn’t, our politicians would be a lot happier. Gay marriage, abortion, tax raises, etc. The reason they have to answer questions about policies is because that’s what we’re voting based on. And the same goes for appointees, goshdarnit.

It goes without saying that other Western democracies have these cabinets already discussed beforehand. [Note: When I reference other democracies, I don’t mean therefore that’s how we should do it – I’m generally just responding to people who say that way is unthinkable (legislative solutions to abortion, universal healthcare, single bodies of government, etc.)] In Britain for instance, the Parliamentary leader has a “shadow cabinet” where for each cabinet post, there’s a MP who leads the opposition policy on that matter, and will generally sit in that chair if their party wins election.

Of course such a prohibition on speaking about your appointees isn’t written in the constitution, but whereas this blog is devoted to the places where democratic accountability and revered tradition clash, this is definitely a tragic circumstance. We replaced a qualified technocrat so respected even Republicans burnished his image with a slime-bag campaign fundraiser, and we wouldn’t have if we’d been able to ask the candidates beforehand what they would do.

What can we do? Well demand our nominees make a cabinet. Criticize people who hold that electoral tradition should stand, be it in the media, the enemy party, or our own. Propose potential appointees before elections and publicize them and ask the candidates to say that’s who they’ll appoint. As we can see, the alternative is pretty dreadful.


At 3:49 PM, Blogger Dennis said...

There are roughly four issues here:

1) Making a cabinet during an election does require vetting hundreds of people in a short time with effort better spent elsewhere.

2) Loose party leadership. I imagine in most of Europe, even if you don't know when the next election will be, you know for damn sure who's running on both sides: the PM and the leader of the opposition. Their appointees are together already. If Dean had won the nomination in '04, he'd've had his pick of the party for cabinet, not just the people advising him beforehand.

3) Head of FEMA isn't a cabinet position anyhow. Point (1) really gets huge once we get into subcabinet appointees.

4) All of the things you said being so, how do we get from here to there? If it's in the interest of no political actor to do this, how do we make it happen?

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Rousseau said...

2) So this is one of the reasons for stronger parties, at the very least.

3) There are a limited number of such visible appointments. FEMA has certainly been a cabinet lvl position. I'd say this could be limited to one non-Secretary for each cabinent, with a couple extra for state.

1) is perhaps the biggest worry, although conversely helped by my answer to three.

4) Well that really means what we mean by "us"

bloggers: keep track of information about potential appointees and use every chance we can to ask politcians about appointees. Raise awareness of this as an issue in the media, particularly during primaries.

members of a political party: look for and recommend specific talent to nominees

voters: if a candidate announces appointments but his opponent refuses to do so, loudly proclaim your vote will go to that candidate

in general: bitch about media traditions


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