Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is Government Safe for People Who Think?

You're going to want to read Ezra Klein on the Baucus plan today -- here and here and here and here and here -- if you want to understand the substance of the policy debate going on right now.

Earlier, though, Ezra had a post I found quite interesting and want to think about a little more. Ezra is upset about recent no-nothing attacks on Cass Sunstein, which follow similarly ignorant attacks on Zeke Emanuel:
The message here isn't simply that we can't make the hard and necessary decisions in public life, as doing so will invite attacks from opportunists and ensure the loss of reelection. It's that if you ever want to work in public life, you shouldn't engage such questions in private life, either. It's a politics that is flatly opposed to considering hard choices on difficult dilemmas. That is flatly opposed, in other words, to thinking.
I agree with Klein that it would be a shame if one had to avoid ever taking positions on anything even remotely controversial -- and any serious subject is potentially controversial -- if one wanted to leave open the possibility of entering public life.

On the other hand, I think it's perfectly appropriate to hold public servants to a fairly high political standard. If you embrace the crazy by signing on to a truther petition (and, if you were misled about it, you fail to immediately denounce it loudly and publicly), then you pretty much deserve what you get when the crazy comes after you. Or, if you wind up taking highly unpopular positions on matters of public policy, you certainly can contribute to the public debate, but don't expect to be appointed to a key position in the new administration.

My understanding of the Sunstein and (Zeke) Emanuel stories, however, is that the attacks are frauds. They aren't being attacked for wrestling with tough issues and, in the process, taking positions that will later prove embarrassing; they're being taken out of context and basically slandered. It is true that in such a system one must have a fairly thick skin to enter into public service at a level high enough that one might become a target. That's a cost, but I don't think it's an unfair cost. Beyond that, however, the real question is whether attacks based on fraud are as successful as attacks based on reality. Here, an excellent post from Mark Ambinder reminds us:
As a general matter, the White House has a history of NOT caving, even when the freak show, to borrow Mark Halperin's term, packs 'em in. Zeke Emanuel may have had some pull with his boss's chief of staff, but the White House hasn't asked Mark Lloyd, an FEC adviser, to step down because Glenn Beck and the Media Research Center have him in their sights. Sonia Sotomayor's remarks about Latina judges and wisdom? The White House defended her stoutly

The administration hasn't withdrawn the nomination of Cass Sunstein for an important and powerful OMB post, nor did they ask Rosa Brooks to leave the administration when she was subject to loud criticism, nor have they stopped fighting for Dawn Johnsen's nomination to be the key legal adviser in the Justice Department. Or Harold Koh, who is now the State Department's chief legal adviser. Or John Holdren, the chief science adviser, who thirty years ago wrote dispassionately about abortion as a method of population control. Actually, when it comes to defending administration officials in key positions who make daily contributions to policy, the Obama White House defends its own pretty well.
So it seems to me that there's some good evidence that the political system can successfully distinguish between real and phony, but it's also fair to say that we don't yet know whether most or all of these targets (not all of whom are in the Sunstein/Zeke Emanuel category) will eventually survive. If they do, then I'd say that Klein's concerns are overstated. If not, he has a good point. As I see it, the Van Jones episode was good evidence in favor of the system working. Pretty much everyone ignored Glenn Beck when he was ranting about communism and czars and other nonsense -- but as soon as evidence was presented that Jones had crossed a serious line to seemingly embrace the crazy, he was toast. I'm very comfortable with Washingtonians enforcing that sort of distinction. If, that is, they can hold that line.

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