On 4 October 2005, the Diane Rehm show featured a discussion with Time magazine correspondent Mark Thompson about some investigative reporting they had done which revealed that the George W. Bush administration was “more ideological” in its political appointments — that is, in the people appointed to run the various cabinet departments – than previous administrations. This was, of course, cast as something nefarious and, somehow, un-American — “My god, the President is political!“. It was also presumed, without any dissent from anyone else, that this was a symptom of some kind of “cronyism”. I wrote this to dispute that — or, at least, since I make no claim to assured knowledge of what was in President Bush’s mind — to offer a reasonable and rational alternative explanation. Since the broadcast that day was cut short by some kind of news conference (the nature of which has escaped my memory), I sent it too late for it to make it onto the air. I will give Ms. Rehm and Mr. Thompson the benefit of the doubt and assume they would have talked about it if they had seen it in time…
4 October 2005
Mark Thompson, from Time, indicated that their investigation had shown a more ideological cast to political appointees under the Bush administration than under (for instance) the Clinton administration. This may be, as surmised, a symptom of cronyism or of a more partisan outlook than was evident from previous administrations. But there is another possible explanation that deserves some consideration.
The current president came into office as a critic of the way the Federal Government has been operating and, in particular, with the goal (admittedly far from fulfilled) of reducing our reliance on Federal largesse and of devolving both responsibility and authority from the Federal government to State and Local governments or to the private sector.
One might expect — and I believe any critical look would bear this out — that the Federal bureaucracy would resist that agenda. It is neither in the personal interest of bureaucrats to give up their own responsibility and authority, nor consistent with the general ideological cast of those who tend to choose a career in Federal service, to reduce the size and scope of government. With that in mind, it should not be surprising that the President’s political appointees are chosen, in part, for an ideological outlook consistent with that agenda.
If you are trying, as did Bill Clinton specifically and as do the Democrats generally, to increase the role of the Federal Bureaucracy in our lives, you will get unmitigated cooperation from that bureaucracy no matter who you put in charge. You do not need particularly ideological appointees to move your agenda forward.
If, on the other hand, you are trying to reduce that role, you need someone in charge who can and will impose discipline on a bureaucracy that is trying actively to resist your attempt.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the supposedly apolitical part of the Federal government — the civil servants who run the bulk of things — have a general antipathy to a conservative political agenda that envisions a much more constrained Federal power. And, so, I don’t think it’s unfair to expect that the appointees of a conservative president, who must overcome that antipathy if they are to move their agenda forward, will share that conservative ideological bent. That is neither cronyism nor particularly partisan. It is merely a necessity created by the climate in which they must work.
© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell