2008 - %3, November

The Agents of Change on Obama's Transition Team

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 1:19 PM PST

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Last week, the Obama transition team announced its agency review teams, which, according to the office of the president-elect, will examine key departments, agencies, and commissions, as well as the White House, to provide Barack Obama and his key advisers "information needed to make strategic policy, budgetary, and personnel decisions prior to the inauguration." As the media and most political consumers focus on who will get what senior position in the Obama administration, this group of about 130 people will do the nuts-and-bolts work of preparing the agendas for the incoming decision-makers. It's an important band of policy wonks and government experts. Many of the positions were filled, as might be expected, by Washington players who served in the Clinton administration. For instance, Reed Hundt, who chaired the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton years and who now works for a strategic consulting firm, is leading the team responsible for international trade and economic agencies. And Tom Donilon, a partner at the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers, who was assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration, is in charge of the group focusing on Foggy Bottom. (The bio for Donilon released by the transition office neglected to mention his stint as general counsel and executive vice president at Fannie Mae.)

The transition team has its share of lobbyists--despite that Obama once vowed he was "running to tell the lobbyists in Washington that their days of setting the agenda are over." But while most of the transition team members possess the conventional resumés of Washington insiders—albeit Democratic ones--there are several transition team appointments that stand out as harbingers of change. Or at least potential harbingers. These are people whose careers have been anti-Bushian in a deep and profound sense that extends beyond partisan difference. They are academics or policy advocates who have devoted much—if not all—of their adult working lives to advancing the public interest. Their presence on the review teams—even though the transition could use more of such people—enhances the prospect for change beyond the usual. Here's a sampling:

Sarah Sewall is leading the transition's national security team. She is the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. According to her bio, her "research focuses on U.S. national security strategy, civil-military relations, and the ethics of fighting insurgencies and terrorism." The ethics of fighting terrorism? That's about as non-Bush (or non-Cheney) as it gets. She also started a project to create "a military concept of operations for intervening to halt mass atrocity." Not even Bill Clinton did that.

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Lieberman Escapes Dems' Wrath--and That May Be Good

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 12:43 PM PST

Revenge is for those who don't care about results.

That's the mature message of Howard Dean. Moments after the Democratic Caucus in the Senate decided to keep Senator Joe Lieberman, who had campaigned for John McCain's presidential bid, as head of the Homeland Security Committee, Dean, the outgoing head of the Democratic National Committee told the Huffington Post that the Senate Dems had done the right thing:

You know, the desire of revenge is great, of course. But the truth is public policy doesn't run on revenge very well. And when you see the trouble this country has gotten into in terms of foreign policy, where Bush basically ran a foreign policy based on petulance because he was mad at, for example, Mexico, for abstaining on the Security Council when the Iraq War came up, if you have to actually run the country, it is best not to do it based on feeling of anger towards your enemies....
My point of view is that Barack won. He can afford to be magnanimous. And if we happen to win both recounts and Georgia, Joe is the 60th vote. And the truth is -- and I certainly don't have to defend Joe Lieberman because, you know, we have an interesting history -- but the fact is, he does vote 90 percent of the time with the Democrats. And no, he shouldn't have said all those things. But why not clean the state? Why not start all over again? Why not allow him to vote with us on the 90 percent of the stuff? He will be a good vote on climate change -- and this matters. He may be a good vote on election reform, which I hope we will get to. So, you know, he may end up - though it is a little against the odds -- he may end up being the vote that allows us to conduct business when Mitch McConnell decides we shouldn't.

Dean has a point. Netroots Democrats got whipped up into a frenzy over the Lieberman matter. For many Democrats, excommunicating Lieberman--who is an independent now but who caucuses with the Democrats--would have felt great. They wanted to see the Senate Dems flash some political muscle. But getting personal is not always the way to get ahead. When Obama takes the high road, he can gain political capital. When congressional Democrats help him do that, they will be helping themselves. Lieberman is a sideshow--a sanctimonious, irritating sideshow. But the president-elect and the Democrats in Congress have much bigger fish to fry. They could afford to toss this one back into the pond.

By the way, Kevin disagrees.

Advice for Pinch

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 11:02 AM PST

ADVICE FOR PINCH....George Packer says the New York Times should fire Bill Kristol when his one-year probationary period is up in December:

In his year on the Op-Ed page, not one memorable sentence, not one provocative thought, not one valuable piece of information appeared under his name.....Kristol's performance on the Op-Ed page during the most interesting election in a generation is a historical symptom, not merely a personal failure. He wrote badly because his world view had become problematic at best, untenable at worst, and he had spent too many years turning out Party propaganda to summon the intellectual resources that a difficult situation required. Now the Times owes it to its readers to find someone better.

After a couple of months I stopped reading Kristol's columns. It wasn't because I disagreed with him, it was because he was boring. Whatever the meme of the week was in the few days prior to his Monday appearance, you could be almost sure that's what he'd write about. Not only were his subjects often stale by then, but he almost never offered anything more than the tritest conservative conventional wisdom on the subject at hand. Snooze city.

So: who should take his place? Since this is a liberal site, and the Times is looking for a conservative columnist, the answer is probably going to be whoever infuriates you the most reliably. (Kristol didn't. He just put me to sleep.) Consider this an open thread.

Holy Joe Update

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 10:05 AM PST

HOLY JOE UPDATE....I see that Senate Democrats have voted to allow Joe Lieberman to keep his committee chairmanship. I guess they really showed him, didn't they? No Democrat will ever dare to support a Republican candidate for president, speak at the Republican national convention in prime time, and bad mouth the Democratic Party's candidate ever again.

Clintonites

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 10:03 AM PST

CLINTONITES....Just a quick comment on a common meme: Why is Barack Obama surrounding himself with so many Clinton retreads? That's not change we can believe in!

Sure, sure, but look: anybody who's been active in liberal governance for more than eight years is likely to be a Clintonite. It was the only game in town during the 90s. And anybody who's been active less than eight years probably doesn't have the experience to get a top level position. So there's really no way around this. There are some fresh faces around for Obama to tap, but for the most part, when you're staffing highly visible and responsible positions, you want someone who has at least some experience to fall back on. And since Bill Clinton is the only Democrat to hold the presidency in the past 28 years, that means someone who served in the Clinton administration.

I suppose this doesn't bother me as much as it does some people since I never expected Obama to be a huge left-wing break from Democratic tradition in the first place. He's a little farther to the left than Clinton, but not a lot, and it's only natural that he'd find a fair number of Clintonites who hold views similar to his own. What's more, as his campaign showed, he's obviously a guy who values experience and deep knowledge. He'll do fine, Clintonites or not.

Abortion Access: Bush Administration Continues Its Last Minute Moves

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 9:28 AM PST

This is not the first time the Bush Administration has tried to tweak policy in these closing days, and it won't be the last. But it is disheartening nonetheless. The Times:

A last-minute Bush administration plan to grant sweeping new protections to health care providers who oppose abortion and other procedures on religious or moral grounds has provoked a torrent of objections, including a strenuous protest from the government agency that enforces job discrimination laws.
The proposed rule would prohibit recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and other health care workers who refuse to perform or to assist in the performance of abortions or sterilization procedures because of their "religious beliefs or moral convictions."
...three officials from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including its legal counsel, whom President Bush appointed, said the proposal would overturn 40 years of civil rights law prohibiting job discrimination based on religion....

The Civil Rights Act already prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. This is fundamentally about protecting pro-lifers who don't want to hand out contraception or perform abortions. That is, making family planning more difficult in America.

The opponents of the new rule include Democratic politicians (including Obama), abortion rights groups, pharmacies, and many states. Notes the Times, "State officials said the rule could void state laws that require insurance plans to cover contraceptives and require hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims." That's frightening. If this change was so easily done by the Bush Administration, hopefully it will be just as easily undone by the Obama one.

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Quote of the Day - 11.18.08

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 9:17 AM PST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From maritime energy security specialist Candyce Kelshall, responding to the unprecedented seizure of an oil tanker 450 miles off the coast of Somalia:

"If it was an LNG tanker seized, we're looking at something potentially catastrophic. An LNG tanker going up is like 50 Hiroshimas."

I just thought I'd start off the morning with a cheery thought. You may now go about your business.

Take This as Tacit Black Support for Gay Marriage

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 8:53 AM PST

Here's Beyonce, Paul Rudd, Justin Timberlake (he's almost black, right?), and Saturday Night Live working it through, ahem, the 'back door' for gay rights (scroll to last video).

A reach, I know. But Will Saletan at Slate thinks blacks will eventually get religion about homosexuality, too.

Why Rescue Automakers and Other Corporations that Have Been Bad Neighbors?

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 8:46 AM PST

As Congress ponders whether to bail out the auto industry--and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson opposes using the Big Finance rescue package to aid the Big Three automakers--a press release put out by a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, Steve Kagen, illustrates the dilemmas at hand when it comes to assisting multinational corporations that have made their own now-falling-apart beds. Kagen asks why the taxpayers should help out Chrysler when the owner of Chrysler has screwed his constituents by shutting down paper mills in his district and refusing to sell those facilities to others.

Kagen explains:

Congressman Steve Kagen, M.D. says no taxpayer money should be given to Chrysler until after Wisconsin papermakers go back to work. Cerberus Capital Management, L.P., one of the largest private equity investment firms in the United States, owns many corporations including automaker Chrysler and NewPage Corporation, which recently closed two paper mills in Northeast Wisconsin putting over 750 people out of work.
"If Cerberus needs to raise cash to bailout Chrysler, then they should sell our idle paper mills in Kimberly and Niagara," said Kagen. "Local community leaders have given them opportunities to sell - they have turned them down - and now hard working families in Wisconsin are being asked to help the very people who have taken away their jobs. Outrageous. I am strongly against any taxpayer funds being given to Chrysler until their parent company gives us our jobs back. Cerberus already has millions of dollars of assets in these mills which they can sell tomorrow, putting my friends and neighbors back to work, and generating the capital necessary to keep Chrysler afloat."
Kagen spoke this weekend at the dedication of Camp Kimberly, an area set up across the street from the quiet NewPage paper mill. Former mill workers are holding daily vigils to urge NewPage executives to run the mill, or sell it.
....The closure of the mill in Kimberly caused the loss of over 450 papermaking jobs and the Niagara mill closing put over 300 people out of work. Both closures were due to unfair competition from foreign-made paper.

Whether Kagen is right or not about what Cerberus has done--or not done--regarding the paper mills in his district, this situation shows a fundamental problem. Troubled corporations deemed too big to fail are running to the government for handouts, and it may be best of bad options to use taxpayer dollars to prevent their collapse. But these same corporations have often showed disregard for their workers, their consumers, and the communities in which they have thrived. That is, they haven't made decisions to advance the greater good--after all, that's not been their mission. (Their top job has been to make money for the shareholders and owners.) Yet once they hit trouble, they plead that it serves the greater good to keep them afloat. It's a basic asymmetry. To compensate, taxpayers and legislators ought to apply public interest standards for any bailouts that do proceed.

Would a Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Be a Return to the Past? No. Here's Why

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 8:34 AM PST

So far, no one has confirmed the Guardian report that Hillary Clinton will accept the offer to become Barack Obama's first Secretary of State, which suggests to me the Guardian got a little more out-front on that story than was appropriate. But what does it mean if she takes it? After appointing a top Clinton aide to chief of staff, putting what seemed like the entire Clinton economic team on his economic advisory board, and choosing Hillary for State, has Obama returned the country to the 90s and broken his promise to bring a new direction to Washington?

I don't believe so, and (I can't believe I'm saying this) I'm turning to Maureen Dowd for back-up. In a recent NYT column, she wrote:

If Barry chooses Hillary as secretary of state, a woman who clearly intimidated him and taught him to be a better pol in the primaries, it doesn't signal the return of the Clinton era. It says the opposite: If you have a president who's willing to open up his universe to other smart, strong people, if you have a big dog who shares his food dish, the Bill Clinton era is truly over.
Appointing a Clinton in the cabinet would be so un-Clintonian.

And the distinction isn't just with the Clinton Administration. Bringing strong voices unafraid to dissent into the inner circles of power is very different from the early Bush Administration, which famously refused to hear viewpoints that didn't agree with Bush and Cheney. And not insisting that all power reside in the White House (instead, allowing some to sit in Foggy Bottom) is also very un-Bushian.

It's part of an early Obama pattern. Forgiving Joe Lieberman his transgressions by allowing him to keep his chairmanship and place within the caucus, which Senate Democratics appear ready to do in part because of a nudge from Obama, is a refreshingly grudge-free approach to managing Washington. (Though, I'll admit, it is hard to see Joe get off scot free.) Forgiveness, power-sharing, brooking discussion and possibly dissent — it's all very new around here.