Loyalty is the New Competence
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Beginning with his nomination for Attorney General I had reservations about Michael Mukasey, and he has consistently lived down to my worst expectations. I did not like the fact that the Senate seemingly had no opportunity to give advice on the selection (beyond what appears to be secret meetings with Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein), nor did I like his apparent equanimity about brutality. The best name I heard floated was Mike DeWine, the recently-defeated Republican Senator from Ohio. He is solidly Republican and consistently voted with the President (one of the reasons he lost) so it would have satisfied the "to the victor goes the spoils" nature of these things, but he was also a known quantity to the Senate. He had worked with almost everyone there and as far as I know was well regarded. But beneath the surface something I couldn't quite pin down was buzzing around like a mosquito, and it all fell into place last week while reading The Dark Side. Jane Mayer quotes an anonymous CIA officer on page 180 as he disparages Jose Rodriguez Jr, then-head of the CIA Counterterrorist Center (CTC): "[in the] administration, loyalty is the new competence."
It is no secret that loyalty has been the preeminent virtue honored by the White House. In some cases it is the garden variety loyalty, which basically means making an effort to cooperate and being discreet (and flexible) about differences. When one of the parties is the President it is easy to couch it in terms of "do it for the good of the party" and have it functionally mean "do it my way." But their preferred strain of loyalty is much more insidious. A current or former member of Congress like DeWine most likely has a decent sized network of support outside the administration. Career civil servants are likely to know their way around the bureacracy and be able to fend off all but the most determined and ferocious attacks. Any loyalty people like that have will inevitably be tempered by the influence of others.
The administration wants no such taint. Reading the description of Rodriguez' surprising elevation to the CTC made me think also of Mukasey, and Monica Goodling, and most famously Alberto Gonzales. All of them have essentially no other connections in the capitol. "His base consists of one individual" said William Schneider of Gonzales, and others made the same observation. He was widely regarded as a hack (both as the President's counsel and as AG) but in a sense his competence level did not matter. All that mattered was this: He had no one else to turn to. If he wanted to break with the administration, where would he go? What office could he run for? Who would sponsor such an attempt? What think tank would have him? Who would want him lobbying in their name? Mukasey was confirmed as AG with a much more accomplished record, but is in the same position. DeWine would have been more like another ex-Senator turned AG - he could have remained in town after stepping down and transitioned into a lucrative private sector position.
The White House may have realized that as well, and considered it an intolerable risk. Much has been made of the cult of personality surrounding the President (summarized best by Sara Taylor). I think a lot of people - myself included - wrongly concluded that what drove the unyielding devotion of so many was for all intents and purposes brainwashing. Hiring graduates of little regarded universities, finding someone with no history in Washington or abruptly elevating those with no demonstrated qualifications all serve the same purpose: It creates a class of workers who will be with the program regardless of whether or not they agree with it. They will work perched atop a cliff, and if they want to walk away the first step will be a long fall.
In one sense it doesn't matter. The internal dramas of various flunkies is of concern only to them; all we care about is how it affects us and our government. But it matters in this way: People hired in those circumstances comprise a significant part of the corrosive status quo, and if our representatives and institutions rejected them in principle we could prevent them from getting in place. If the Senate said to the President, you must nominate people with existing support systems at least for the big positions (cabinet, Supreme Court, etc) or we will reject them out of hand, it might help guard against such appalling performance in the future.