Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why 1993 Was a Disaster

I continue to agree with Matt Yglesias's comments about Robert Rubin and Rubinites, although he and I disagree about political employees in general (what he calls an "irrational attachment to America’s heavy reliance on political appointees" I call a healthy and realistic appreciation for the pathologies of bureaucracy along with strong support for meaningful democracy...as I said, we disagree).  At any rate:
The thing about the Clinton administration is that Jimmy Carter’s administration ended in 1980. So if you’re going to create an economic policy team for Barack Obama your main choices are (1) “folks who worked on economic policy in the Clinton administration,” (2) “folks who worked on economic policy in the Bush administration,” and (3) “folks with little economic policy experience.” Now forced to choose between (1) and (2), I think (1) is clearly the better choice. Option (3) isn’t the worst thing in the world, lots of intelligent knowledgeable right-thinking people don’t happen to have experience in government. But it seems to me that it’s extremely prudent for a president to desire that the majority of his economic policy team be composed of people with previous executive branch economic policy experience. 
In 1993, Bill Clinton demonstrated the problems with choice (3) -- not for economic policy, but for the White House staff.  Clinton was (quite logically) afraid of turning out like Jimmy Carter, and he wisely avoided the kind of Washington-bashing that Carter, and to some extent Ronald Reagan, had indulged in only to find that they actually had to work with Washingtonians.  But Clinton avoided anyone who had experience in Carter's White House.  At that point, the most recent Democrat other than Carter had been out of office for 24 years, so Clinton was left with a White House full of people who had never worked there before. 

It worked badly.

In fact, it worked so badly that Clinton wound up having the consensus Worst Transition, and most likely the Worst First Few Months ever, at least for a modern president (I suppose William Henry Harrison retires the trophy for worst first few months, all-time).  By all accounts, the White House just worked terribly.  Eventually, they wound up bringing in someone who didn't have the taint of the Carter Administration -- but did have experience in the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I Administrations, and eventually they shuffled everyone around and wound up with a very well-regarded operation, but by then they were in a deep hole, and wound up a lot closer to a Carter level of first-two-years productivity than to an Obama level.

Now, one can make too much of this...there are other reasons for Clinton's poor start, and Obama's strong one.  And one can never prove that if Clinton had put, say, (Carter-WH vet) Stuart Eizenstat in the White House and maybe one or two others that everything would have worked out better.  I can't prove it, but I do believe it's true. 


  1. I am not sure I understand what you and MY are getting at. Rubin didn't have any Washington experience before he was hired. I think the point of most of us who are bitching is that he chooses the wrong people. What's the point of having William Daley as CoS except to make the left feel more pissed off? Or why hasn't Stiglitz ever been offered an administration position? He has plenty of the right kind of experience. I think the problem is that people like Geithner and Bernanke(and a few others) is they get ahead of the Peter Principle, not because they can do their job well.

  2. (Continued)

    Now. There's a wonky, intellectual way to rationalize this and say, sure, the Clintons hated Carter but hey, party uber alles, right? The good of the party, the good of the nation, experienced Carter hands are better than inexperienced Arkansas hillbillies, right?

    And yet, the experienced senior manager understands perfectly well why public hatred for a former President precludes hiring his hands. This is because underlings in an Administration have success to large measure by virtue of their loyalty to the top dog; any successful Carter Administration employee would have hated Clinton - because Carter did. As a successful governor/chief executive for a decade, Clinton would have well understood the benefit of loyalty for an underling's organizational success, and he would have known that his (Clinton's) public hatred of Carter precluded him from hiring successful members of Carter's administration (who were definitionally Carter loyalists).

    Interesting to revisit this in the context of whether management experience matters for a President. I think when the book on Obama is finally written, people will find that Obama was too inexperienced as a manager, too enamored of ideals and intellectualism and teams of rivals, and not cautious enough about the fact that teams of rivals tend to have divided loyalties, which frequently makes them more trouble than they are worth.

  3. (The first part of the comment above was lost, but is here)

    I've made this point before, but it seems you can not overstate the importance of the Cuban Refugee Crisis in understanding why Clinton, practically, couldn't hire any Carterites for his administration. In the spirit of the topic du jour, understanding why Clinton couldn't hire any Carter vets helps clarify the added value of high-level management experience for a President.

    Long story short re: the Cuban Refugee Crisis: in 1980, a bunch of Cubans made it to the Peruvian embassy in Havana, several thousand were then relocated to northern Arkansas, (over Clinton's strenuous objection), eventually there were riots/violence/chaos, and a few months later Clinton lost his gubernatorial re-election bid, a campaign in which his opponent (Frank White) tagged Clinton with the Cuban Refugee violence; many - especially the Clintons - blamed Clinton's loss on the crisis. If you believe Carl Bernstein's "A Woman in Charge", the Clintons' hatred for Carter burned intensely due to the Cuban Refugee Crisis and simmers to this day.

  4. "What's the point of having William Daley as CoS except to make the left feel more pissed off?"

    Uh, it could be almost anything, really. Maybe he's a good manager (he has run a lot of stuff). Maybe he's got a good relationship with the rest of the administration (not a stretch, given the number of Chicagoans and Clintonites). Maybe he's got a mainline to important interest groups (the Daleys aren't exactly lacking for connections). Maybe he's got good ideas for using solely executive power to goose the economy in the face of an opposition Congress (he's done it before).

    I dunno, he's not the most inspiring choice to me, but I guarantee the reason he might be tapped looks a lot more like the possibilities mentioned above than anything about an intentional plot to piss off "the left". For god's sake, Obama's a politician, he's not LOOKING to piss off ANY voters, even a group as exceedingly small as those who 1) know what a CoS does; 2) know who Bill Daley is; and 3) have strong feelings should the twain meet.

  5. Also, Carter himself is a good example of what you're talking about, JB; guys like Jordan and Lance only gave him headaches (As did his initial eschewing of the entire CoS model).

    I wonder if Carter could've tapped some more LBJ folks. He certainly ran against a corrupt, imperious Washington culture that LBJ contributed to...but he really ran against Watergate and a weak economy. I can't imagine he'd actually have been punished for hiring, I dunno, LBJ's old Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs. And anyway, I doubt it would've been any worse than what he actually got.

  6. CSH,

    I think that's correct, perhaps, about the die-hard Carter people. But plenty of Dems worked in the Carter WH who weren't particularly Carter-loyal; that's why I singled out Eizenstat, who was a Humphrey person before he was a Carter person, and actually did wind up with jobs in the Clinton administration (but not the WH), so presumably he was available.

    Clinton did try to bring in Washingtonians, but unfortunately that wound up translating into Hill experience, not WH or exec branch experience, for the most part.

    (It didn't help that, as far as I can tell, personnel evaluation was a major WJC weakness, but that's another story).

  7. Caitlin,

    I agree completely about Carter. The thing is that, unlike everyone else, he actually seemed to believe in his own anti-Washington rhetoric, and acted on it. He certainly could have had experienced people, but he thought he was better off without.

    Awful president.

  8. How does an outsider like WJC distinguish between staffers that appear to be Carter loyalists, but aren't really, and those that appear to be loyalists, and are? Could it be that the difference between Humphreyites who made it in the Carter administration, and those that didn't, was transference of loyalty to the peanut farmer? Absent further information, transferred loyalty would seem to be the key factor here.

    Which is not to say that an executive can never hire a rival; arguably the profession of retained recruiting exists precisely for that reason. But there's a big difference between McDonald's hiring a respected Senior VP at Burger King, and McDonald's making the same hire...in spite of public, unmitigated hatred of all things Burger King.

    FWIW, I think WJC is an overrated President, as his hagiographers tend to overlook the benefit of the peace dividend on reduced defense spending in his first term and the huge increase in revenues from tech-bubble-driven short term capital gains taxes in the second. But I do sympathize with his predicament in early staffing decisions.

  9. "How does an outsider like WJC distinguish between staffers that appear to be Carter loyalists, but aren't really, and those that appear to be loyalists, and are?"

    Well, presumably, WJC- or really, anyone who can win a party's nomination and then the Presidency- really isn't all that much of an outsider. They've certainly got contacts in several major party factions, people who can feed them information, people who know these guys and know what their real loyalties are. And of course, once you're actually President-elect, you essentially have the entire party to help you ferret these things out. Then again, the Carter Administration was 12 years dead by that point, and Humphrey's time as a relevant force was even older. That alone is pretty good reason not to trust the info you can get.

    Either way, I think you make a good point about WJC's hands being tied, but it might've been for another reason- his whole "New Democrat" pushed him away from old-line New Dealer Dems like Humphrey. Again, would he really have been punished for hiring former Humphrey aides? I doubt it. But that's how he campaigned, and, presumably, how he saw his options.

  10. I agree with Colby: no one wins a presidential nomination today as a pure "outsider." If you look at Clinton's campaign team, they weren't (for the most part) Arkansans; they were campaign and Hill veterans who had worked for lots of Dems over the years. That was, however, a lot less true for Carter...it has to do with how reform evolved, and possibly with other changes in the parties.

    I don't think the "New Democrat" thing would in any way have inhibited Clinton from hiring people with Carter WH experience; they hired plenty of people who had worked for mainstream Dems in Congress. I just suspect that they (1) were deliberately avoiding Carter people, and (2) didn't realize that specifically WH experience was important.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?