Untangling Obama's Cabinet

Election '08

Following up on Chris Bower's earlier blog post on Obama retaining Bush officials to staff the Pentagon, it's worth noting that there are substantial policy differences between people on the left of the Democratic Party and those soon to be in power.  Ultimately it's these policy differences that matter.  Here are a few.

  • Afghanistan: Joe Biden says that withdrawing troops from Iraq is imperative so that the administration can put more troops in Afghanistan.  Steve Clemons, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Vague think that we should cut deals with the local Taliban, perhaps do some economic development, and leave.  
  • Iraq:  Obama's current plan is to leave a residual force in Iraq (which John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Joe Lieberman praise).  A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq called for no residual troops, as did Bill Richardson.
  • The $700 Billion Bailout:  Obama whipped House members aggressively for the Treasury to establish the TARP program.  Opposition to the bailout was spread out among populists on the right and the left, without coherent form.  
  • Infrastructure:  Biden is talking about the transportation part of the infrastructure stimulus going to roads and bridges, many of us want SUPERTRAINS and less investment in the oil-dependent sprawlconomy.

There are probably a lot more splits, as well as areas of alignment, but starting out with a big split on war and peace in Afghanistan isn't a small deal, with all that killing.  Domestically and abroad, we just don't know what policies the Obama administration is going to put forward, and so we have to guess.  This is actually by design, as Biden makes clear.

"You get to see what's in the package when we've completed the package, and when we've negotiated a little bit more with our colleagues in the House and Senate," Biden said. "Keep in mind that it's really important that this package when submitted to the Hill succeed and pass."

Guessing as to what's in there is inherently uncertain, but the personnel is the best heuristic we have, aside from stated policies during the campaign (many of which have become obsolete when a trillion dollar stimulus and a nasty credit crunch fully flowered).  That's what Chris Bowers was doing when he noted the ideological loyalties of the Obama cabinet members.  Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ed Kilgore both argue that Chris is wrong.  Coates suggests that leaving out White House staffers renders Chris's judgment inaccurate, and furthermore, the DLC tends to overstate its influence with officials.  Kilgore, the former policy director of the DLC, credibly points out that the DLC involved a wide variety of politicians in its activities, so having associations with that group is not necessarily indicative of anything in particular.  I should also add that Kilgore is one of the few former DLC officials who has really taken the time to understand our arguments, and respond to them with an intellectually curious streak rather than intense defensiveness.

Fortunately, we don't have to throw opinions at each other to settle the argument about Obama's cabinet; Nolan McCarty at Princeton compared voting records of the Cabinet members, and showed that "the evidence is pretty strong that the administration lies considerably to the right of the Democrats in the House, but is reasonably representative of Senate Democrats."  Coates's point about senior White House staffers is reasonable; Melody Barnes for instance has no measurable track record equivalent to a voting record.  Still, who Obama picks to his cabinet-level appointments can't mean nothing at all.

Here's what aligning with the Senate Democrats signifies in terms of policy sympathies.  This is a list of controversial conservative votes from the Senate, broken out by party support.

To support the new Bush-supported FISA law:

GOP - 48-0
Dems - 12-36

To compel redeployment of troops from Iraq:

GOP - 0-49
Dems - 24-21

To confirm Michael Mukasey as Attorney General:

GOP - 46-0
Dems - 7-40

To confirm Leslie Southwick as Circuit Court Judge:

GOP - 49-0
Dems - 8-38

Kyl-Lieberman Resolution on Iran:

GOP - 46-2
Dems - 30-20

To condemn MoveOn.org:

GOP - 49-0
Dems - 23-25

The Protect America Act:

GOP - 44-0
Dems - 20-28

Declaring English to be the Government's official language:

GOP - 48-1
Dems - 16-33

The Military Commissions Act:

GOP - 53-0
Dems - 12-34

To renew the Patriot Act:

GOP - 54-0
Dems - 34-10

Cloture Vote on Sam Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court:

GOP - 54-0
Dems - 18-25

Authorization to Use Military Force in Iraq:

GOP - 48-1
Dems - 29-22

There are real personnel differences between the administration Obama is putting together and what a left-wing progressive administration would look like.  There also seem to be significant policy differences between what you would find on the left-wing of the Democratic Party (or even just House leadership) and in the Obama administration, though perhaps there isn't much daylight between the bulk of the Senate and the Obama administration.  And they aren't small differences, with matters of war and peace actually meaning not whether you support 'escalation' or any other bureaucratically stultified word but whether you support state-sponsored organized killing for dubious strategic ends.

It's part of village culture to worship 'consensus', so I understand why there is such fierce reaction against criticism of Obama from the left.  But the criticism isn't baseless, it comes from those who really have different ideas about how America should be governed.  I know it irritates centrists to no end that we're out here, making these arguments.  It isn't though that the Obama people are clever progressives trying to make 'our' agenda seem centrist and achievable.  They aren't.  On many issues, they simply disagree with us about what they are trying to achieve, and have picked people who will help them achieve their policy objectives.

That's fine.  But it's not that Obama is incrementally trying to achieve universal health care and we're asking for single payer tomorrow.  Details matter, policies matter, personnel matters, and politics matters.  In many cases, incrementalism is a difference in kind, not just a different path to the same place.  While antebellum politicians could pander to anti-slavery sentiment by opposing its expansion to territories or new states while supporting slavery in the South, that wasn't ultimately a sustainable political position, nor would anyone today confuse that with taking the abolition line.  Compromise for compromise's sake simply avoided dealing with the problem.  It's possible that today we are in a similarly polarizing position, sitting between a high trust world of localized power production and collective security and a low trust national security state with low wages and a constant race to the bottom.  Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place.

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