Day By Day

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Revolt of the Professionals

Glenn Kessler has a very perceptive article in yesterday’s WaPo. In it he argues that the Plame investigation and its legal consequences are, like many of the attacks on and critiques of the Bush administration, rooted not in partisan warfare but in an all-out institutional struggle between elements of the “permanent government” and Bush’s political appointees.

Read it here.

This comes as news to many in the mainstream media, but in itself the conflict is really nothing new. The federal bureaucracy clashes with nearly every new administration.

One of my Washington correspondents, a former high-ranking official in that bureaucracy, described the normal course of things. “Each new administration comes in thinking that they know all the answers,” he said, “and at policy meetings all the political figures sit around the table while the professionals sit behind them in a supporting role.” “That goes on for a while,” he explained, “but eventually the political people realize that they don’t know everything and the professionals begin to migrate up to the table. And by the end of the Administration’s first term nearly all the seats at the table are occupied by professionals.”

Such is the senior bureaucrat’s view of the way things ought to be. The permanent government sees administrations come and go and has learned to deal with them with a minimum of fuss so that they can get on with the job of running things without much political interference.

At least that’s how it used to be. I asked my correspondent what was different about this administration and he replied “with these guys the professionals don’t even get into the room.”

Disdain for political appointees permeates the permanent government, but for the past few years it has been particularly virulent in the military, the CIA, at State, and at FEMA as current and former officials leak and smear to a willing media or increasingly take their complaints before the cameras.

We saw precursors of this in the Clinton administration when budget cuts decimated the army and a host of retired general officers began to give stories about our military “unpreparedness” to any reporter who would listen. And, when Clinton replaced a number of Republican appointees at the Justice Department, he created a large and resentful cadre of “former” federal prosecutors who eagerly took to the airwaves to expound on his legal problems.

Under Bush the warfare has reached unprecedented levels. Rumsfeld’s reforms [actually an extension of ones already underway] have alienated many recently “retired” senior officers who regularly appear on your TV screens to insist that we need more “boots on the ground.” CIA officials, resentful for having been blamed for faulty intelligence estimates in the runup to Iraq (not to speak of their failure to foresee the collapse of the Soviet empire and Saddam’s WMD projects prior to the first Gulf War) and in the throes of a major reorganization that has cost many of them their jobs, are leaking and smearing with wild abandon. FEMA professionals have been fuming ever since the creation of Homeland Security (mandated, you will remember, by Congress) cost them their cabinet level status and freedom of action. They gleefully took advantage of the Katrina mess to opine freely on the deficiencies, real and imagined, that ensued upon the departure of the Sainted James Lee Witt.

And then there’s State. The problem with career foreign service officers is that they, over time, come to identify more with their professional community, including their opposites representing other governments and NGO’s, than with their elected bosses. To the careerist at State they and other professionals could manage the world much more effectively without interference from the political leaders they serve. They actively resent the failure of political figures to heed their recommendations, and their conviction that diplomacy can always serve as a substitute for military action fanned that resentment to white hot intensity regarding Iraq.

The common threads here are the insistence of government professionals that their training and expertise uniquely qualifies them to make decisions and craft policies that vitally affect the lives and fortunes of the American people and their active resentment of elected officials and their appointees who decline to defer to that expertise. This in itself is nothing new, but what has changed is the proliferation of channels through which disgruntled professionals can air their grievances, often anonymously, and a willingness of the press and members of the political opposition to seize on these charges in an attempt to embarrass the incumbent administration. Most disturbing is the tendency in both parties to make policy disputes matters for legal action. Taken together these constitute a profoundly anti-democratic trend, one that must be resisted. Government is far too important to be entrusted to professionals. Those who wield the authority of government must always be subject to democratic checks.

Overweening professionalism also reared its ugly head in the matter of Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court. Today she withdrew in the face of withering attacks. I’m not sure just how I feel about that. In one sense, I’m glad that the incessant attacks on her have ended and the commentators have switched into insincere praise mode. On the other hand, the last few weeks have been brutal and I have been appalled by the ferocity and sheer viciousness of what was written and said about this good woman.

In practical terms the nomination was withdrawn because the Senate votes just weren’t there. Forget all that stuff about Senators finding her lacking in interviews. For the most part they wouldn’t know legal competence if it waddled up and smacked them on their foreheads. They simply were looking for a safe position to take and an unwillingness to commit was the safest port they could find. Only a handful of Senators’ views counted and they, for various reasons, came out against, or ostentatiously failed to support Miers’ nomination.

Miers’ most outspoken antagonists were movement conservatives. Here I’m not speaking of the religious (or if you prefer, “social”) conservatives, but of the Buckleyite intellectuals who lurk in the depths of Washington think-tanks, or write for organs such as the National Review or the Weekly Standard. It is their conceit that they, through the main force of their arguments, elected Republicans from Reagan to Bush (hence their claim to speak for the President’s “base”). Now they have added Harriet’s scalp to their belt and are issuing demands that Bush hew tightly to their agenda

The basic charge against Miers was that she wasn’t “qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court. In other words, her professional credentials were insufficiently impressive. In actuality there are no qualifications for sitting on the court. You don’t even have to be a lawyer. And many people whose professional credentials were far from impressive have served on the court with distinction.

But Harriet Miers was “unqualified” to sit on the court because she went to the wrong school (SMU), had not published in distinguished journals in the area of constitutional law, and had held no judicial posts. In other words, she did not have the proper credentials.

The idea that one needs a sterling resume in order to sit on the Supreme Court is yet another example of rampant professionalism in Washington. Credentials are bureaucratic substitutes for knowing an individual’s worth. They may be a reasonable aid to assessing candidates for a position within an impersonal bureaucratic structure, but they are no substitute for personal knowledge. The conservative “intellectuals” who led the charge against Miers were all highly credentialed individuals. Most had degrees from elite schools. They all had extensive publications. Many had impressive job titles [although, as one of my DC correspondents points out, nearly everyone in Washington has an impressive job title]. They are products of a credentialing system from which they derive a great deal of their sense of self-worth, and through which they present themselves to the world. They are, in their own minds, meritocrats who have attained success through demonstrated excellence. They see no reason why a similar standard should not be applied to high level government appointments.

But Dubya operates on a different standard. From his early days at Yale he has been contemptuous of the formal credentialing process, preferring instead to judge people on the basis of personal knowledge. He’s more concerned with knowing a person’s character than in reading lines on a resume. His standard could be considered inappropriate to a large, complex, bureaucratic situation in which people have to judge others based on a minimum of personal knowledge, but that is not how things work at the highest levels of government. There a small number of people who have known and worked with each other for years cooperate informally to achieve mutually determined goals. That is true not just in the West Wing of the White House, but in the Senate, in the House of Representatives, and on the Supreme Court. That is a personalized, informal, non-professionalized world in which formal credentials are of little matter. Dubya chose a person he knew and trusted, and recommended her to the clubby Senate to serve on a panel of nine justices supported by a few dozen clerks. He was saying, “I know this person well, I trust her judgment and character, and feel she can function effectively at a high level of competence in a small, elite working group.” That, in normal circumstances, would be entirely appropriate and sufficient for her confirmation. But in today’s highly politicized atmosphere, where everything is turned into an ideological confrontation, where a sensationalistic media distorts everything, and where an insane devotion to professional standards, no matter how bogus, rules, Harriet Miers’ could not be confirmed.


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