The federal talent farm

Across his eight years in office, President Obama has overseen an enormous amount of consequential policy change. He’s also presided over a broad and deep collapse of the Democratic Party at lower levels that simply can’t be reversed in 2016 because far too many state and local offices aren’t on the ballot this fall.

Turning that around ought to be one of Hillary Clinton’s major goals in office. The transition provides a great opportunity to get started by tapping young, talented, ambitious people whose elevation to federal jobs can set them up for later runs for federal office.

–Matthew Yglesias, Hillary Clinton should use her appointments to build up her party

I don’t feel as though I should have to to burnish my anti-Trump credentials before making my remarks, but bear them in mind anyway. When populists on the Right and the Left curse the Establishment for its incestuousness and slimy power politics, this is exactly the thing they’re talking about. (Even if they don’t know it.)

Patronage has been a cornerstone tool of partisan politics for a long, long time. Everybody does it. Romans called it the cursus honorum. Yglesias cites Daniel J. Galvin’s 2009 book, Presidential Party Building, which argues that Republican presidents since the mid-twentieth century have done more to secure the future interests of their party than the Democrat presidents have, because the GOP presidents wanted to convert their “minority” party into the majority (taking into account all downballot elected offices), whereas Democrats were able to rely on fairly stable majorities (again, downballot). The Republicans have enjoyed a lot of power in state and local offices (and the House of Representatives) for nearly a decade, putting the Democrats in the overall minority role. Yglesias’s logic, as far as I can figure, seems to be that the Republicans were able to abuse the system for their own partisan gain, so the Democrats should do it, too.

I don’t think “abuse” is too strong a word. What Yglesias recommends is that President Clinton treat the federal government as the Democrats’ very own personal grooming machine for future electoral candidates. He calls that a “major goal.”

Well. Okay then.

To be “Machiavellian” need not be a bad thing. I think Clinton’s generally pragmatic approach to politics is, on the whole, a good thing. Her willingness to be different things to different interest groups is extremely pragmatic, as is her relationship to Wall Street. RuPaul basically nailed what makes Clinton an effective politician. That said, I do think there’s a distinction we ought to make between appreciating what makes a politician effective and what a politician’s priorities ought to be.

Political critics must always hedge against being either too idealist or too cynical. Treating the federal apparatus as a farm for up-and-coming Democrat talent, with that explicit purpose in mind, is extraordinarily cynical. There’s a cold calculus involved in all political interactions, but Yglesias doesn’t even give lip service to the notion that perhaps those appointments ought to be filled by the best people for the job, regardless of partisan affiliation.

I don’t think it’s incurably starry-eyed to expect that the president, who’s supposed to govern all Americans, not just the ones who voted for her, with restraint and a semblance of parity, should try to hire the best people for the job whether or not they’re Democrats. Nor is it untoward to expect that writers who have spent the better part of a year snarking at Trump’s authoritarianism be a bit more reflective about how nakedly partisan they want their government to be. “Major goals,” indeed.

When a Trump supporter reads someone like Yglesias (yes, yes, I know how unlikely it is that the average Drumpfkin has even heard of Vox), he sees a representation of all that is wrong with Clinton-style governance, and perhaps the so-called Establishment as a whole. He sees a Hillary booster who wants to see the United States turned into a machine dedicated to the perpetuation of Democratic (read: left-wing) political power. And that’s not an entirely inaccurate impression. Bernie supporters may feel similarly, though less viscerally. Imagine if Yglesias replaced every mention of Democrats with “lobbyists”–also known as “those special-interest puppets politicians become when they fail their re-election bids.”

The view that the government should be nonpartisan is not incompatible with the view that sometimes it simply can’t be nonpartisan. Reality is hardmode. Really, I do get it. But what makes a republic work is a commonly-held faith that, on balance, our government does not work primarily, as a “major goal,” for the prospects of a single political party. It is supposed to work for all of us most the time, regardless of which party has the upper hand at a given moment. Not even to pretend that that’s the case is the privilege of the elite and the prerogative of those for whom government is ideological war conducted by other means.


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