Squabbling over the spoils of victory is a time honored American electoral tradition. After all, the winning candidate has, by definition, been able to cobble together coalitions of somewhat disparate groups and achieved victory by promising them goodies - or at least a friendly ear in the Oval Office.
In Obama’s case, his appeal to the center (which has gotten slightly more liberal over the last decade) has raised suspicions among his more rabid partisans on the far left that Obama just isn’t “progressive enough” and that putting pressure on the new Administration to toe the line and adopt their agenda should begin early.
(Note: I find it fascinating that complaints about ideological purity from both the Republican and Democratic bases could be exactly the same - except one side won and the other lost.)
Regardless of where you think Obama is on the ideological spectrum, it’s a good bet that the new president will try, at least at first, to tack more center-left in his policies than give in to his radical base of hard left activists who feel Obama owes them for their support. Big Labor, NOW, the Netroots, and other extremist elements in Obama’s coalition all think their support was decisive in putting the candidate over the top and now have their hands out. How Obama responds to their entreaties will determine his initial success or failure.
This piece by John Heilemann in New York Magazine details the initial skirmishing by some of these groups over Obama’s choice of Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff and his mulling over the choice of Larry Summers, former president at Harvard, for Secretary of the Treasury.
Summers is the rumored favorite for the Treasury posting having served in that position the last year of the Clinton presidency. According to Heilemann, he enjoys wide support on Wall Street and among the foreign financial establishment.
But he also brings some baggage that displeases Obama’s radical base. You might recall that he was forced to resign as Harvard president because he dared to quote empirical evidence that women do not do as well in math and science fields as men. He gave as an explanation three possible reasons; more men are willing to make the commitment in time and effort to advancing in these fields; that there were innate differences between the sexes; and that there was discrimination in the workplace and sexism in the socialization process.
All of these hypotheses are probably correct to one degree or another. But such truth telling always gets one in trouble with the left - especially since Summers said he believed that the likeliest explanation was the first reason he gave with the others in descending importance. (Brendan Nyhan has a better summary of the controversy here.)
Not recognizing the victimhood culture advanced by feminists as the main cause of the lack of women in math and science was Summers sin and he paid for it by eventually being forced to resign. Note that it wasn’t that he dismissed the idea, it’s just that he didn’t pander to the notion that every explanation for disparity between the sexes necessarily had to do with discriminatory actions of a male dominated culture.
The long knives on the left came out for Summers almost before the Grant Park celebration was over:
The mau-mauing of Barack Obama officially began less than 24 hours after he won the White House, when National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy piped up about the possibility of Obama picking Larry Summers as his Treasury secretary. Gandy told the Huffington Post she had “mixed feelings” about Summers, saying he “doesn’t seem to get” the economic implications of gender-based wage disparities. She cited Summers’s incendiary comments as president of Harvard about women’s intrinsic inaptitude for math and science—the ones that helped get him booted—as a cause for concern. And she expressed some displeasure that no female economists are being mentioned as contenders for the Treasury job. “We’re gonna be forwarding some names to the Obama transition team,” Gandy said. “It’s important that in this new administration women’s voices are heard and heeded.”
The next day, the HuffPo ran another anti-Summers story, this time revisiting a controversial memo on the economic logic of exporting pollution to the developing world that he wrote (or at least signed his name to) in 1991 at the World Bank—and also suggesting that his having once dated wingnut Laura Ingraham “could become a source of political embarrassment” to Obama. Soon enough, Summers’s inflammatory tendencies were being invoked all over cable news; in a post whose headline called Summers a “fat, hated burnout,” Wonkette declared, “Want change, a fresh start? Hire a notorious ex-Clintonite who masturbates to NAFTA!”
I once wrote of Wonkette that she looked like she was “pushing 40, pre-middle aged, dumpy, lumpy, policy maven” and that her site contained “No original thinking. Dull, drab, almost humorless, and totally without redeeming value. In short, a waste of time and bandwidth.”
She wrote me “You stay classy, guy.” Still something of a blogging newbie, I was somewhat ashamed and wrote a post the next day saying I had gone too far in my description of her personal appearance.
Today, I take it all back. I wasn’t half as rough on her as she deserves.
Besides Cox’s lack of coherence (Shocking sexual imagery to describe someone’s support for a trade agreement? Now that’s what I call a slutty policy maven.), the reaction of NOW and other opponents of Summers shows what Obama is going to be up against during the transition. These are groups that have been out of power for a long time and will seek to hold the new president’s feet to the fire on cabinet and White House personnel appointments.
Take the Emanuel choice for chief of staff. Rahmbo is part of the Chicago East mafia that will be moving to Washington as Obama takes charge. Several higher ups in his campaign, including David Axelrod (former press aide to Mayor Daley), Valerie Jarrett (Machine insider), and Marty Nesbitt (political fixer and moneyman) will also have prominent jobs in an Obama Administration. To claim that any of these folks are “agents of change” is laughable. Nesbitt headed up Daley’s Housing Authority while Jarrett chaired the powerful Chicago Transit Board. You don’t get those plum jobs by reforming anything. You get them by doing what you’re told.
Emanuel is better known as a Clinton attack dog but his roots are all Chicago. He has been called a “pragmatist” which is only slightly wrong. If “pragmatism” means doing anything and everything to win, then that fits Emanuel to a “T.” Policy and ideology are not as important to the new chief of staff as coming out on top. If this means knocking a few liberal heads together in order to shut them up and keep them from trying to push some cockamamie ideas on his boss, Emanuel is perfect for the job.
But Heilemann points out that Obama and Emanuel will have to deliver on something if they expect support for their agenda.
What’s easy to forget is that, in building his administration, the audience that Obama is—or should be—playing to isn’t hard-core, stone-cold Democrats. It’s the broader electorate, much of which has invested great hope in Obama but continues to watch him closely, waiting for proof that his promise of fundamental change isn’t, well, just words. What that audience would regard as more of the same wouldn’t be a handful of Clintonites in high positions but the sight of Obama’s capitulating to the hoary interest-group posse that’s just begun to rear its head, or to the demands of the extant congressional party Establishment. To a striking degree, and by design, Obama’s victory was won independently of these forces. He owes them precious little. And that gives him the freedom to build a government on the singular criteria of its capacity to get shit done.
The heartening thing is that, so far, Obama seems to get this deeply. It’s early days, of course, but both the Emanuel and Podesta appointments reflect clarity of purpose, maturity, and cold-eyed calculation in roughly equal measure. The choice of Summers would demonstrate all these things, too—along with a bracing lack of concern for what the carpers and ankle-biters think. For Obama, the trick will be remembering that change does indeed require change agents, but that agents of change can be found in the unlikeliest of places: the Clinton camp, Old Washington, and even the GOP. In 1992, Clinton promised an administration that looked like America. Obama is promising something much more lofty—transcendence, transfiguration, a new frontier. But a government that actually, you know, works would be a fine place to start.
So where’s the payoff for these groups? In addition to naming the cabinet, the president gets to appoint several thousand assistant secretaries,undersecretariess, members of various commissions - all of the non-permanent part of the bureaucracy. In many ways, these appointments will be even more crucial than his cabinet appointments because the president’s will is translated through the lenses of these true believers. And unless you have a cabinet secretary willing to rein in their excesses, Obama could find himself waking up one morning to headlines like “Department of Agriculture says catsup is a vegetable.”
Groups like NOW, Code Pink, Moveon, and other far left organizations know full well where their real payoff is coming. They are no doubt compiling lists of thousands of the fellow travelers as I write this, all set to hand them to John Podesta or some other conduit for consideration by Obama. These are the real “agents of change.”
And they are to be feared as people in the Middle Ages feared the plague.