Personnel and Policy

Matt Stoller:

That said, it’s utterly absurd to think that personnel don’t frame an administration’s priorities.  One of Markos’s central arguments is that you should put people who don’t believe in government in charge of government, and he’s right.  But he’s right because the people in charge of stuff matter.

Bush puts conservatives in positions of authority, which is what a conservative President does.  A President puts people in charge who he thinks will best execute a policy, and usually those people execute policies they believe in.  Bob Borosage stated that “it’s not the personnel, it’s the policy”.  But of course, if Obama put Rumself in charge of DoD, that would suggest certain priorities and I think people would draw conclusions based on that pick.  If he brought Karl Rove into the White House to dispense political advice, it would be absurd.  Similarly, drawing on Cheney for advice on environmental policy would also be absurd.  But it would be absurd because personnel matters, and we all know that when it’s brought into stark relief.

So the pretense that personnel doesn’t matter, that there’s some airless container where good policy is divined and executed by bloodless technocrats according to a politician’s wishes is absurd.  And we know it in one realm, let’s just acknowledge it’s true.

Of course this is largely true, but I think the problem here is that Stoller is engaging in a rather extreme strawman argument. No one serious would disagree that it would be a bad idea to take environmental adivce from Dick Cheney, but then Obama isn’t considering such a course. And Larry Summer, Bob Gates, and Tim Geithner are not Don Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney. Stoller’s problem isn’t so much that it’s inaccurate, it’s that he’s using an argument of scale that no one else is using. And as such, he’s not really arguing the merits of any other pick, he’s trying to distract you with a semi-tangential comparison that draws you away from the main point of contention, but leaves you in agreement with him if you never go back to the actual question.

And as a commentor at Open Left points out, George W. Bush appointing the moderate Christine Todd Whitman didn’t really say very much about his approach to environmental policy.