Cabinet-making:

Dan Drezner and Bruce Bartlett and Matthew Yglesias all enthuse about the idea of a Presidential challenger naming a shadow cabinet. Matt identifies some disadvantages:

The first is simply that the vetting and decision-making process would distract key campaign staff at a moment when they have the non-trivial task of running a presidential campaign. The other is that presumably anyone you would appoint would be expected to participate in the campaign, complete with harsh denunciations of the other guys, which could make the confirmation process much harder down the road.

and Dan others:

I can see downsides to this strategy — in particular, such an announcement increases the number of official mouthpieces — which increases the likelihood of one of them committing a gaffe that saps time and energy from Kerry.

The idea has always seemed like a nonstarter to me, for three major reasons, none of which Matt or Dan precisely touches on.

1) Naming a cabinet inevitably involves lots of disappointment among one’s allies, supporters, and subordinates. There are many more people on a campaign advisory staff who imagine themselves getting cabinet positions, or at least imagine themselves in the running for one such a position, than there are actual cabinet positions. This is salutary, from the candidate’s prspective. It provides a lot of very smart and/or politically important people with a spur to help the campaign as much as possible. Naming a shadow cabinet early dampens the enthusiasm of all those not selected who would otherwise have imagined themselves as possible choices, and might even dampen a certain competitive energy among those tapped. I think campaigns tend to benefit from a dynamic of advisors and supporters striving for future position by impressing the candidate and the voters. Of course, those tapped would then have a more-focused incentive to campaign all-out; they’d want their candidate to win in order to get their appointments. But there’s no such countervailing influence for all those who weren’t picked. The desire for recognition, status, prestige, and power is a very important motivator, and an especially important one for political animals. It’s a desire that can create trouble in lots of circumstances. But, from the candidate’s perspective, the campaign isn’t really such a time. It’s entirely in the candidate’s interest to have all those possible future cabinet officials striving, and imagining their possible reward.

Relatedly, all those not chosen become possible sources for backbiting in the press. But probably even more important than the disappointed expectations of the possible cabinet officers themselves are the disappointed expectations of the factions they represent. Naming a cabinet is usually disappoints a lot more factions of one’s base than it pleases– again, because everyone can imagine their own preferred cabinet before it’s announced, and there are a lot fewer actual positions than dreamed-of positions. It’s one of the trickiest moments a president-elect or new president faces in terms of navigating among competing groups of his supporters– and that’s even after he’s gained the prestige associated with being the President-elect or the President. Democrats have been willing to forgo factional fighting over the platform this year, but the platform doesn’t mean anything anyways. Imagine the usual factional energy that gets channeled into platform fights applied to something that actually matters, personnel. If I were a candidate I’d want none of it.

2) The first worry is about the disadvantages of dealing with one’s supporters and base after having gotten too specific. The second is about the disadvantages of dealing with the general voting public after having gotten too specific. Naming a cabinet puts a clear ideological or intellectual stamp on a candidate, and also says something specific about which interest groups the candidate considers priorities. None of that is to the advantage of a presidential challenger. The challenger wants to be the one who all the voters can project their hopes and wishes for change onto. The challenger’s job is to keep the focus on the Need for Change, on the reasons why the incumbent should not survive our system’s equivalent of a vote of confidence. Naming a shadow cabinet tends to distract from the referendum on the incumbent that a challenger has every incentive to insist upon.

3) Every shadow-cabinet nominee is a scandal in the making. This isn’t just about gaffes. Cabinet-selection often turns up significant embarrassments and scandals (legitimate or otherwise): Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, John Tower, Linda Chavez. The current schedule concentrates these in the December-March after a presidential election– when the President-elect or new President is still mid-honeymoon, and when they’ll all be safely forgotten about before the next election. The incumbent cabinet is made up of people who survived the running of the nomination gantlet. The major embarrassments have been found out and discarded three-and-a-half years before. They’re safe. Putting a dozen new names up, however, makes a dozen new targets for oppo research and muckrakers– a dozen new opportunities for major embarrassment, for shifting the story from the incumbent’s performance to a scandal on the challenger’s side. What’s worse, any such scandal will become the kernel of a “look how inexperienced and amateurish the challenger and his team are”– a story that always gets told in the early months of an administration, but that the challenger really needs to avoid in the summer and fall before the election.

There are very occasional, very special cases. It was clearly to W’s advantage to de facto name Colin Powell as his Secretary of State nominee before the election. But that was partly because Powell was himself a blank slate that lots of people could project their wishes onto. (Tough military man! Reassuring pro-choice moderate! Figure for racial progress! Fought Clinton on gays in the military! Opposed the [first] Iraq War! Won the [first] Iraq War! etc, etc.) And that precedent is hardly a reassuring one anyways. If I were a candidate, I’d look at the Powell precedent and think, “I don’t want to spend my term in office with a cabinet secretary who thinks he’s got an electoral mandate all his own, who will spend his time glorifying himself to Bob Woodward instead of ever getting on an airplane to do his job, who will be convinced that he’s more important than the administration as a whole.” At the end of the day I think Powell’s been a pretty mediocre Secretary of State on anyone’s measure other than his own; neither the President nor his critics have any real reason to be glad Powell’s been in office. Maybe Powell would have done a better job if he hadn’t had the inflated sense of self-importance that came with being named in advance; or, maybe, in January of 2001 W would have had the freedom of maneuver to pick a better nominee. The cases when naming a shadow minister might be to a challenger’s electoral advantage might also turn out the be precisely the cases in which it’d be to the disadvantage of the new president’s ability to govern effectively. So I’d be wary even of the special cases. But the strategy of naming a whole bunch of personnel nominations seems to me obviously a mistake; it runs contrary to every incentive a challenger faces.

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