Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Against Careful Vetting (Kevin Jennings edition)

Chris Good thinks that Kevin Jennings has survived the attack on him (ostensibly for apparently mishandling advice to a young student twenty years ago). He thinks that what spared Jennings was (1) the facts of the case turned out favorable for Jennings, and (2) liberal push-back circulated those facts. Sounds right to me. Good's summary of the fallout:
The White House, meanwhile, has avoided handing its critics another victory. Jennings did not become the next Van Jones, and the hated conservative attack machine was stopped. Jennings not only has kept his job, but the administration, at least so far, has avoided what would surely be a public relations nightmare--its third appointee to fall after criticism from the right, raising more questions about the vetting process.
A couple of things here. First, I think this shows why Van Jones had to go. Jones, you'll recall, was defended by the White House when the charges against him were vague associations with communists and socialists -- but dropped rapidly once Jones was revealed to have signed on to a "truther" conspiracy-theory ad. The White House needed to and did set a standard that random smears based on half-truths and innuendo should be ignored, but if real disqualifying material surfaces they will act -- the establishment of such a standard encourages Washingtonians to trust the WH when they rally behind a Beck target.

Second, the issue of vetting. In my view, the lesson of Kevin Jennings and Van Jones is that the administration is vetting too carefully, not vetting too carelessly (the third targeted appointee Good refers wasn't a vetting issue, as Yosi Sergant was taken down for actions in his then-current job, not for his past). I continue to think it's a real mistake to focus on the embarrassments caused by too little vetting, at the expense of the mistakes caused by too much vetting. Vetting mistakes cause highly visible firestorms...within the tiny universe of people who follow politics very closely. They're of course especially visible to the avid consumers of attacks on the administration, but for that group it doesn't matter whether the attacks are true or not (and there's no question but that the attacks will find targets no matter how carefully the administration vets appointees), and there's no real reason for the administration to care exactly what the Rush audience is upset about, since it'll be something regardless.

The mistakes caused by too careful vetting may not be very visible, but for an administration that actually cares about governing the nation well, those mistakes -- which rob the presidency of valuable people, and which leave so many positions vacant nine months into the presidency -- are actually very serious. There seems to be little the administration can do about the slow pace of confirmation (although publicizing GOP foot-dragging on nominations wouldn't hurt). However, Obama can control his own vetting process. As I've said before, I'd recommend unilateral disarmament here: just stop doing it. Radically pare back vetting of new appointees, basing it on whatever top private sector executives have to go through, rather than the insanity that has gradually built up in the executive branch over the last couple of decades. Yes, minimal vetting will result in more Van Jones stories. So be it. The administration isn't going to fall because of that sort of mini-scandal about the backgrounds, not the actions in office, of a different completely obscure appointee once a month or so.

The way to go about this, I think, is by commission. Here, I'll fill it out: start with Andy Card and Mack McLarty, add a couple of big-company CEOs, retired or not, then a couple of former Department Secretaries who had to live with the problem (John Ashcroft and Richard Riley?) and round it out with two retired Senate committee chairs, one from each party. Tell them to report back in three months with a mandate to radically reduce the amount of vetting that appointees must endure. And then implement their plan.

The Obama administration knows that it shouldn't base things on winning news cycles. Minimal vetting will yield a few more ugly news cycles, but it will also make the government run better. That's a trade-off that this administration should have made a year ago, and it's not too late to get started right now.

1 comment:

  1. New info on Jennings:

    Jennings was member of Act Up:

    Jennings helps fund Harvard "Act Up" exhibit involving sexual perversion, child pornography, and anti-Catholic bigotry:

    Jennings praised NAMBLA supporter Harry Hay, knowing of his support for pedophilia: Zombietime blog:

    Jennings' publisher also produced pro-pedophilia (and porn) books:

    "Kevin Jennings, Harry Hay, and Pornography"


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