Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 March 2019

A Modern Team of Rivals


For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

The phrase “team of rivals” comes from the title of a modern book of history. It describes the Executive team that Abraham Lincoln put together as our Civil War was brewing and our nation seemed to be falling apart.

Lincoln suffered from depression, but he was not an insecure man. He understood that a Cabinet and Executive staffed with his personal friends, his backwoods cronies, his political enablers, hangers-on, and sycophants just would not do.

Instead, he assembled a Cabinet of his most able rivals, including those whom he had just beaten, barely, in a close presidential election. He went for talent, not familiarity, loyalty or his own comfort. He appointed pols with independent political constituencies.

That approach was, in large measure, responsible for Lincoln’s greatness as a leader. Not only did he win the Civil War and preserve our Republic. Before being assassinated, he got the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments passed and ratified into constitutional law. These “Civil War Amendments” abolished slavery and subordinated “states’ rights” to certain key national values. They put us on the long, hard road to true equality and the sort of utopian republic of which Jefferson had only dreamed.

As today’s Dems survey their vast and unruly field of presidential candidates, they should keep this example firmly in mind. They’re addressing the worst threat to the survival of our democracy since the Great Depression and World War II, and our greatest division since Vietnam, if not the Civil War itself. Every candidate must consider how to heal that division and effect a “miraculous” recovery from the worst and most corrupt misrule in our history.

Specific tasks ahead of the winner will be many and hard. They will include: (1) halting our descent into a new Gilded Age, (2) curing what may be the worst economic inequality in America since the Abolition of slavery; (3) making sure that every citizen has the right and equal opportunity to vote; (4) curbing partisan political “tricks” like voter suppression and gerrymandering; (5) fighting disinformation and “fake news” from sources at home and abroad; (6) insuring that all can afford medical care at a reasonable price; (7) setting our country and leading the world on a course toward slowing climate change; (8) restoring and advancing an international rules-based order despite the rise of authoritarian leaders worldwide; (9) keeping the peace amid the rise of China and the renewal of Russia as world powers; and (10) making sure that American’s ingenuity and innovation augment and enhance its own people’s employment and welfare.

No one person can possibly do all this by himself or herself. No single person can even organize it. Success will require perhaps the best Executive team in our national history.

So, right from the outset, even during the primary campaign, all candidates should think of themselves as part of a modern team of rivals. They should see each other not as people to beat, far less as enemies, but as people to work with in a sacred trust.

This frame of mind will have four salutary effects. First and foremost, it will promote a new and more graceful tone. Pundits and commentators love to tout American politics as a “blood sport” or “contact sport.” That view sells “news.” But if the truth be told, it has gone way, way too far. The cascade of insults and personal vituperation during the 2016 Republican primary campaign were not just puerile and uninformative. They were embarrassing and shameful.

This time, the Dems can distinguish themselves by setting an adult and dignified tone. They can personify Michelle Obama’s First Law: “When they go low, we go high.”

The second salutary effect of the team-of-rivals mindset will be to raise the level of public debates. When one debater makes a new and cogent observation, catching the others off guard, the others needn’t reply with inanities, undeserved derogation or ad-hominem attacks. They can say, “That’s not a bad idea, which you could work on as my Secretary of . . .” Then they could smile.

The third salutary effect will be education. Inevitably, one candidate will have thought more about a particular issue than others, or will have had more practical experience dealing with it. As each candidate showcases her or his particular expertise on particular issues, the others—and the public!—will become educated on that candidate’s special talents and on the substance of possible solutions. That knowledge will serve all candidates in refining their own platforms, the public in considering alternative solutions, and the winner in appointing a good Cabinet.

The final salutary effect will be curbing name-calling and vapid ideology. It’s one thing to discuss whether a plan for universal health insurance will permit voluntary private insurance, including the employer-provided insurance that serves almost half of insureds today. It’s quite another to waste time discussing whether a government health-insurance program, even one that has a “single payer,” is a form of “socialism.”

There hasn’t been a true “socialist” candidate for president in the United States since perennial candidate Norman Thomas died in 1968. No serious pol today is talking about doing away with private enterprise in health care, for example, outlawing private doctors’ offices, hospitals, medical groups and medical laboratories. Debating real substance with non-loaded words will train Dem pols to debate real issues and to handle the name-calling and demagogic nonsense that Trump or another GOP candidate inevitably will throw at them.

Dems can break this awful cycle of senseless demagoguery by handling each other and their campaigns with care. They can return to the kind of reasoned, cause-and-effect analysis that attended the formation of this nation and its constitutional debates, including the Federalist Papers.

Even if not every voter understands every word of it, voters will get to know that those running to represent them are more talented than they and deserve the trust that high office will invest in them. Moving from abstractions and name calling to specific proposals and their analysis will at least convince some voters that those who seek to drive this nation’s car out of the ditch know where to find the accelerator, the brake and the ignition.

In this spirit, I propose to make concrete the abstract suggestion of a “team of rivals.” Here is my “dream list” of non-elective Cabinet and Executive appointments, chosen from among current and plausible Dem candidates for President, plus a few others. The president-elect might or might not also come from this list, but is now unknown:
    Secretary of State: Barack Obama. Who among Dems has more direct, current personal experience in foreign affairs, more good will among our allies, and more respect among our enemies? Whose name in America stands more strongly for restoration of an international rules-based order?

    Secretary of Treasury: Richard Cordray. He’s a good progressive with experience in bankers’ tricks by virtue of his short-lived leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He can hire assistants from Goldman Sachs to tell him anything else he needs to know, as long as he’s in charge.

    Secretary of Defense: Dan Coats. It’s unlikely we will ever have a major war among major powers again. The risks are too high. If such a war goes nuclear, we’ll likely extinguish our species. In more plausible scenarios, “defense” will be all about intelligence, especially in cyberspace. It should be so organized.

    Secretary of the Interior: John Hickenlooper. Who better to manage our nation’s remaining natural resources than a man from Colorado, who helped turn his purple state blue, and who managed a state with everything: national parks, skiing, mining, oil and gas, and lots of farming and ranching.

    Secretary of Commerce: Amy Klochubar. Who better to supervise the resurrection of our “Rust Belt” through government-financed and -encouraged infrastructure restoration than the moderate Dem who personifies the best of our Midwest?

    Secretary of Energy: Jay Inslee. Global warming is the chief threat to our species and the defining issue of our time. Who better to manage energy than a person with actual experience, at the state level, in trying out various concrete solutions?

    Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Cory Booker. Who better to manage public housing than a man who pulled Newark out of the abyss?

    Secretary of Homeland Security: Beto O’Rourke. How about a leader who understands that unity and kindness make far stronger borders than force and walls?

    Secretary of Education: Kamala Harris. Who better to protect our students from oppressive debt and fraudulent private academies than a seasoned prosecutor unafraid to take on big business?

    Secretary of Labor: Bernie Sanders. Who better to supervise the treatment of labor than the man who first rang the alarm about a system rigged against workers?

    Attorney General: Eric Holder. The quickest way to restore American democracy is to make sure every American can vote. Who better to do that than the man who cured Ferguson, MO, not with rage, rhetoric or regret, but by assembling facts proving that Ferguson’s government had been bigoted and oppressive? In a recent op-ed in which he announced his decision not to run for president, and which helped inspire this essay, Holder dedicated himself to voting rights.

    Chair, Council of Economic Advisers: Paul Krugman or Joe Stiglitz. For a change, we could use a chief advisor who actually understands quantitative economics. How about a Nobel Prize winner? And how about one who’s a progressive, believes in equality, understands the depth of our inequality, and is unafraid to speak out?

    Chair, Federal Reserve Board (when current term expires): Elizabeth Warren. The Fed’s lesser-known job is riding herd on our big banks, the top eight of which just about control the world. The Fed does that by regulating things like capital requirements, risk limitations and stress tests. Who better to head this vital job than someone as (rightly) suspicious of banks, and as cognizant of their many tricks, as Warren?

    Head of the Antitrust Division, Department of Justice: Tim Wu. He’s a law professor who literally wrote the book on the “curse of bigness” in Silicon Valley and our digital age. He’s also the father of net neutrality.

    Special Envoy to the Middle East, South Asia and the Koreas: Joe Biden. He’s had extensive foreign-policy experience, works well with Obama, suggested the counter-terrorism policy that eventually prevailed, and is a practical, down to earth man. Being a special envoy would be less taxing than being Secretary of State, and Biden’s taking that role would allow Obama to focus more on trade and patching up relations with allies.
As you think about this list—with whatever changes and substitutions you prefer—think about how much better off we all would be with these experts and good pols in charge. Make the invidious comparison with people like Wilbur Ross, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson. What, if anything, have they contributed besides age, corruption and incompetence? How much easier would it be to right our ship of state with good, strong, experienced leaders at their posts?

One other thing. What would happen if a primary candidate could somehow signal that he or she would make appointments like these? Suppose, for example, that a perceived moderate like Sherrod Brown or Amy Klochubar could convince progressive Dems that his or her Cabinet would look like this? Might she or he, on winning the nomination, attract both moderate and progressive votes?

They say that personnel is policy. That rule of thumb seems to describe the debacle of Trump’s presidency, at least if you consider corruption policy. Could a similar rule apply to a progressive, clean and competent presidency, too?

There are reasons why candidates might not want to name names, especially during the primaries, when they might have to name each other. But do those reasons outweigh informing the public about possible personnel choices, or perhaps just short lists, thereby signaling how a candidate’s administration might look? And what would prevent a remaining candidate even from naming one who had dropped out of the primaries (with his or her consent, of course)?

That’s what we need to think about as 2020 approaches: replacing the whole team, from top to bottom. We can’t put all our hopes on a single leader. Charisma is not competence, although it can help win elections. Isn’t that just how Trump snookered us?

So my refusal to name a president here is not just a rhetorical device. Like most Dems, I’m undecided now; it’s far too early. But one thing is certain. To have any chance of pulling us out of our steep national decline, our next president must be able to name a Cabinet like this one and command the attention and respect of every one of its members. Maybe that’s a good criterion for winnowing the pack.

Links to Popular Recent Posts

For an analysis of the global decline of rules-based civilization, click here.
For a brief note on avoiding health lobbying Armageddon, click here.
For analysis of how to save real news and America’s ability to see straight, click here.
For an update on how Zuckerberg scams advertisers, click here.
For analysis of how Facebook scams voters and society, click here.
For the consequences of Trump’s manufactured border emergency, click here.
For a brief note on Colin Kaepernick’s good work and settlement with the NFL, click here.
For an outline of universal health insurance without coercion, disruption of satisfactory private insurance, or a trace of “socialism,” click here.
For analysis of the Virginia blackface debacle, click here.
For an update on how Twitter subverts politics, click here.
For analysis of women’s chances to take the presidency in 2020, click here.
For brief comment on Trump’s State of the Union Speech and Stacey Abrams’ response for the Dems, click here.
For reasons why the Huawei affair requires diplomacy, not criminal prosecution, click here.
For how Speaker Pelosi has become a new sheriff in town, click here.
For how Trump’s misrule could kill your kids, click here.
For comment on MLK Day 2019 and the structural legacies of slavery, click here.
For reasons why the partial government shutdown helps Dems the longer it lasts, click here.
For a discussion of how our national openness hurts us and what we really need from China, click here.
For a brief explanation of how badly both Trump and his opposition are failing at “the art of the deal,” click here.
For a deep dive into how Apple tries to thwart Google’s capture of the web-browser market, click here.
For a review of Speaker Pelosi’s superb qualifications to lead the Democratic Party, click here.
For reasons why natural-gas and electric cars are essential to national security, click here.
For additional reasons, click here.
For the source of Facebook’s discontents and how to save democracy from it, click here.
For Democrats’ core values, click here.
The Last Adult is Leaving the White House. Who will Shut Off the Lights?
For how our two parties lost their souls, click here.
For the dire portent of Putin’s high-fiving the Saudi Crown Prince, click here.
For updated advice on how to drive on the Sun’s power alone, or without fossil fuels, click here.
For a 2018 Thanksgiving Message, click here.


Links to Posts since January 23, 2017

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