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By Anonymous Mike, pseudonymously.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008
Making a Decision

Ever since I was a wee lad I've been reading that one of the problems with American presidential elections is that what it takes for a candidate to succeed in them has nothing in common with what it takes to succeed as president. Giving a good speech, knowing what attack ads to launch, and looking good when talking with Katie Couric doesn't a good president (or VP) make.

What does a good chief executive do? I mean besides lead? It boils down to 3 qualities:

1) Ability to make good decisions

2) Ability to communicate why those decisions were made (to either the public or subordinates)

3) Ability to select good people to work for you and knowing when to delegate to them

I guess I could add things like negotiating skills but I think those 3 cover it pretty well. Now tell me which of the 3 is vetted by the campaign? Communication skills? Maybe, but how well do stump speeches, debates, and Katie Couric interviews help when you need to convince the nation on an important issue like going to war? Even if I grant you the communication one, please don't tell me that running a campaign equates to running a country.

I'm not sure how you can really vet decision-making ability during a campaign except to look at a candidate's past and the media has chosen to trash the one candidate who actually had to make executive decisions so much for that. So I'll turn to the last one, selecting good people and here's where I think changing some of our norms can really make a difference. My suggestion is simple...

At their respective convention, each nominee will name the people they will appoint to their cabinet. Okay maybe you don't need to know who the Secretary of Veterans Affairs will be, so how about the 4 big posts? Defense, State, Treasury, and the AG. Maybe if circumstance warrant it Homeland Security as well?

The pros:

Alot of executive branch policy ends up in the ditch because the people selected prove to be incompetent (Paul O'Neill) or a political hack (Reno) Not only that but selecting people now will provide some precision to what Obama or McCain would actually do once elected; think it makes a difference if AG spot goes to a Jamie Gorelick or Eric Holder as opposed to a Janet Napolitano? Or Sam Nunn for Defense? Does the candidate talk a good game about raising or cutting spending, but won't back it up at the top levels of government?

I know things are busy for a candidate but they don't get less busy once elected. Tell me what McCain was doing between February and August that was so gosh darn important.


Precision is the enemy of a candidacy. Keeping things vague and at the level of the abstract to appeal to the widest number of voters is the best electoral strategy. Naming appointments now will lower the motivation for your surrogates (though I'm sure Napolitano will take any job just to get out of Arizona) right when you need them; better to keep everyone on edge thinking they will be the one right until you don't need them. Plus once selected, the nominees will be treated as campaign fodder by the press and open to gaffes on a Biden-like scale.

The cons matter to the candidates, but not to the country. The media makes a big deal of vetting the tickets and that notion is based on the assumption that politicians do not have absolute control of how they will portray their candidacies but instead provide information and make themselves vulnerable.

However the biggest con has nothing to do with candidate wants. By its very definition a pre-announced cabinet appointment will have an impact on the outcome of an election. That impact could easily translate to leverage after the election. An important principle of cabinet-president relations is that the latter, by virtue of electoral mandate, holds the final authority. Pre-selecting a cabinet opens the possibility of a British-style cabinet.

Is this a deal-killer? Maybe, but in a time when then the financial system is in melt-down and there will be a president-elect in a little over 5 weeks, wouldn't you like some more precision?