Wednesday, November 19, 2008

We Can Only Afford the Best

As President-elect Obama starts to assemble his team, one of the most interesting dynamics at work is the conflict between qualifications/talent and past associations/controversies. It's happened with most of the major positions in discussion so far - White House CoS, Treasury Secretary, and now AG. This is the dilemma of being in power: all of a sudden the Democrats are responsible for making the decisions, not just for criticizing them. (Don't read this as an exoneration of the Bush Administration; forceful criticism was needed over the last eight years - but governing is a different thing indeed, and its challenges are not always well-suited to people who may have been very effective when in the minority. Just ask Newt Gingrich.) 

I tend to come down on the side of the "all hands on deck" people: our problems are simply too grave to worry about whether (insert prominent Democrat here) will be sufficiently deferential to (insert prominent liberal interest group here). Richard Cohen made the point succinctly, if somewhat caustically, in last week's Post:
Moving on in the Cabinet, my next choice is Lawrence Summers for Treasury secretary. He once held the post and has since been the president of Harvard, where, after an academic lynching, he was forced to leave. Summers has the intellect and gravitas for the job. He's a liberal, but not one who would alarm the markets. His appointment would show that Obama has the grit to stand up to some fierce Democratic Party interest groups, in this case feminists who will not forgive Summers for being intellectually curious about why women do not do as well as men at the highest levels of math. Summers can be an outstanding social klutz, but a deep recession is not a tea party. He has the tools. (italics mine)
It should be noted that Summers was the target of some pretty vile comments by Kim Gandy, the president of NOW, earlier this month. Referring to the controversy over math and science aptitude, she said: "Part of me thinks his opinions on women's capacities for math and science don't have relevancy to financial markets. On the other hand, economics is a very math-heavy field. Does that mean he'd be less likely to include women in his own circle of advisers? I don't know the answer to that question; I don't know him."

Is anyone else reminded of the right's smears against Obama? "Well, gosh, I'm just saying, he's got a Muslim name. Does that make him a terrorist? I don't know the answer to that question; I don't know him." The suggestion that Summers is a sexist, or that his comments make him less likely to include qualified women in his inner circle at Treasury, is absurd at best. Of course, women who do know Summers came to his defense and highlighted his impressive record on women's issues. But hey - let's deny ourselves a brilliant economist who could very well lead us out of a grave problem (one which borders on outright catastrophe) because he said some impolitic things once. 

There have been some similar arguments made for giving Eliot Spitzer a post in the new administration. In the Washington Monthly, Steve Benet wonders if we should deny ourselves a talented public servant because of his serious personal failings:
Yes, he hired a call girl, but so did Sen. David Vitter (La.), and he's still a sitting Republican senator in good standing, who apparently plans to seek re-election. Yes, he committed adultery, but so did Newt Gingrich (thinking about running for president), Rudy Giuliani (thinking about running for governor), and John McCain (the most recent Republican presidential nominee).

Do we have to exclude Spitzer from addressing the issues on which he has considerable expertise? Issues that have nothing to do with an unrelated sex scandal? 

The Anonymous Liberal agrees:

When you're really sick, you hire the best doctor you can. You don't care about his/her personal life. Our economy is really sick right now. We need the best people we can find to help resuscitate it and get it back on track. Or to mix metaphors a bit, this is an all hands on deck moment for the country. We need to put trivial issues aside and put the most capable people we have at the helm. [...] And in a strange way, such an appointment might actually buttress Obama's claim that he's bringing a new kind of politics to Washington. It would be seen as him putting competence ahead of political considerations, of putting the country's interests ahead of his own short-term political interests. I say give Spitzer a second chance.

The same sort of hand-wringing is going on about Eric Holder, Obama's apparent choice for AG. Holder's background is considerably less controversial, but his role in the Marc Rich pardon is definitely going to feature in a nomination hearing. I was surprised (and pleased) to see Steven Calabresi, the Northwestern Law Professor and Federalist Society member, take Holder's side in Politico. This is a great example of intellectual honesty from a conservative who shares very little common political ground with Holder:

The only argument against Eric Holder is that like many other talented and honorable people he is tainted by his work for Bill Clinton because he failed to deter Clinton from pardoning Marc Rich. I think it would be a serious mistake to disqualify from high office all of the many talented and otherwise honorable individuals who had the misfortune to work for Bill Clinton. The questionable ethics of Bill and Hillary Clinton are clearly their problem and should not be held against someone like Holder who has otherwise behaved honorably. I am sure I would disagree vehemently with a Holder-led Department of Justice on many issues, but Republicans lost the election and this is the price of defeat. Objecting to bright and talented Democrats we disagree with because of their guilt by association with Bill Clinton is both unfair and is a mistake.

His criticisms of Clinton aside, I think Calabresi is basically right. Of course, it's easier to overlook flaws and controversies when your side is in charge and you want to appoint your own people. But the huge problems we're facing demand the most capable and intelligent public servants. Everyone who has been in public life has a few controversies to their name - it's unavoidable. Show me a public servant who has no enemies and I'll show you a public servant who's never done anything (one astute reader notes that if you do nothing, someone will hate you for that, too). Let's get the best people we can into the room and work on fixing these problems. Anything less would be a massive - and possibly tragic - failure of leadership.

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