Echo Chamber?

Much has been made - in conservative circles as well as liberal - of Bush surrounding himself with loyalists in his second term. More than partisanship is at stake; all Americans agree that the government should be well-managed and that decisions should be made well. Is the second Bush administration becoming a dangerous ‘echo chamber’, as some claim?

The two notable replacements in the cabinet - Rice at State, Gonzales at Justice - are close associates of Bush. Lower-profile nominees - Spellings at Education, Miers at White House Counsel - are also old friends. However, before throwing up red flags, we should look at Bush's decision-making style and his own logic behind nominations he knows may be unpopular. Bush is generally characterized as a delegator. He gives subordinates broad authority to make decisions, and has little interest in the details that inform each decision. This has its strengths: expert subordinates can often make better, less political decisions than can a generalist president. It also has weaknesses: inept or out-of-step subordinates can really hurt an administration.

Bush, I think, is attempting to address what he saw as weaknesses in his cabinet. Powell, of course, is a brilliant diplomat, but his star power and differences with the post-9/11 philosophy of the administration made him both unhappy and unwanted. Rod Paige and John Ashcroft were both right-wingers who hurt the administration on a few occasions.

The new voices will not disagree as vocally with the President as Powell or Ashcroft did, but Rice (the only known quantity) has been known to disagree with others in the cabinet. The administration may in fact become more effective with the new faces if the cabinet can be characterized by professional debate rather than ideological infighting.

We will not know how effective the new cabinet is for a few months at least. However, we should treat this cabinet as innocent until proven guilty. Bush values loyalty, but he also values competence, and (with the exception of State), we can reasonably expect each new cabinet-level appointment to be an upgrade in management ability.

In addition to this brief essay, allow me to add two post-scripts. First is a personal disclaimer: I think Colin Powell is the best American diplomat since Franklin Roosevelt, in philosophy as well as abilities. Rumsfeld is stuck in the 1940's (look at his hairdo), and Wolfowitz is downright scary; their War in Iraq represents a victory of ideology over reality.

Second is a positive note on the makeup of Team Bush. When female and non-white cabinet members were introduced in the last few administrations, there was usually an unspoken aura of affirmative action. Rod Paige, for instance, seemed to be chosen for his race as much (or more) than anything else. However, in this new Bush shake-up, we're seeing an old-boy network that is made up of both genders and multiple races. The fact that the President's inner circle includes people with last names like "Gonzales" and first names like "Karen" is a sign of just how far America has come after 200 years of waspy males.

Posted by Chops at November 22, 2004 1:21 PM