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 reelected 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.
In 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 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.
An 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 Schultz 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 n 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 Jan. 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.