If we're going to be talking about church models as a tool of understanding, I don't know that one congregation is the appropriate scale. The Democratic Party is at the very least a full denomination.
Now perhaps the Democrats in the Senate, or in Congress as a whole, feel that they're more a congregation unto itself. They do seem to feel more affinity with each other than with outsiders. They do seem to have those qualities that approach tribal or familial sentiment, where they may scream at each other in private so loud that it wakes the neighbors and carry weird grudges for years, but no one else has permission to say a word against one of them in the other's hearing.
I don't understand how this is different from the Beltway/Village mentality that the blogosphere has been complaining about, lo, these several years.
So-and-so may be a creep, but they're our creep. ... Every prediction she's made has been wrong for decades, but look, she's been around for decades and so she will never be without a job. ... I like that program, but I can't stand the sponsor, there's no way it gets funding. ... I can't support this or he'll oppose every other move I make for years. ... Say what you will about her, she stood with me on that one bill back in '88, and I still owe her.
The problem with that sort of community is that it's hard to have a proper conversation with it from the outside, which makes it a bad operating model for a government responsible for the interests of an entire nation. It's dysfunctional in a way that resists transparent interaction and public negotiation.
It's surely a better form of government than monarchy. We've been watching The Tudors around here, a helpful reminder that back then, politics was all personal. Plus, if you got a crazy king, you might be stuck with his warmongering, bad financial decisions or execution sprees for 50 years or more. Though on one score, I empathized with King Henry: why shouldn't he be able to get a divorce like all the other powerful people could just because he was married to the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was holding the Pope virtually hostage?
Which brings us back to denomination-scale politics. When the administrators of a very large, ideologically-oriented organization decide that they're more like a
country club congregation than a set of representatives for principles and functions that serve the stated goals of that larger group, they're leaving themselves wide open to having 95 theses nailed to their office doors.
That may be no big deal, in and of itself. But when the most transparent thing about your operations is that they're plainly based on cronyism and favoritism, the dark side of loyalty and affinity networks, you are eventually going to run afoul of someone who has the power to take their country and go home. Which is how the Roman Catholic Church lost England.
I am not calling for a separate political party. What I'm saying is that the Protestant Reformation happened precisely because the people at the top of a powerful organization decided that the most important politics were personal intrigues of the sort that plague every small, insular group yet invented. They therefore gave leniency to those they shared affinity with, and applied harsh rules to those they disliked or merely were not close to.
They became corrupt and eventually no longer stood for anything except, maybe, 'you and me against the world.' That's great for a family or similar, but is it an attitude we want to encourage in our elected representatives?
In modern parlance, MoveOn makes a mistake and gets censured, Lieberman campaigns for the opposition and gets a gavel. This matters enormously, and it says a great deal about where the border lines are drawn around the community that Obama personally feels himself to be part of.
Words vs Deeds
Chris and I let loose the snark last night, couldn't help it, on a composite of remarks that we've heard in person and read online. And I think that barryr, in the comments to that post, had a great summation of the larger argument that's been going on:
... I think there is a Words vs. Deeds schism. The pivot is about whether Obama should be given the benefit of the doubt.
On the one side, you have people who say that Obama has made this policy or that policy statement, and so he is progressive. He has not had the opportunity to implement his policies, because he hasn't even been sworn in yet. So now is not the time to criticize him.
On the other side (FD: I'm on this side), you have people saying that Obama can and should be evaluated on his actual actions. We know what he has voted for, we know who he has campaigned for, we know who he has appointed to various key positions in his imminent administration. His actual actions are valid clues as to where he intends to take the country.
For either side, it is easy to assume that the other side irrationally loves or hates Obama. ...
Verily. And the arguments over his cabinet picks have reflected about this schism.
As to the Hillary Clinton pick, what I said when the VP speculation was at its height, I think including her in an Obama administration has benefits of star power and constituency inclusion that outweigh certain negatives. Though I agreed with Todd Beeton in that, though I think she will be competent, her foreign policy portfolio is my least favorite.
A rogue cabinet officer will surely be canned. Just, there's simply no way for any one person to keep track of every decision made by every federal agency. There will be no wars started on the sly. Though will agency staff bother inspecting certain large hog farms as regularly as they'd ought? That's another matter.
With several picks, actual deeds, we've gotten people who seem more part of the problem than the solution. Though they haven't been all bad, and I don't want to dwell on those now because that isn't the point of this post. For instance, Daschle seems like he really does have a passion for good healthcare policy, Melody Barnes has drawn rave reviews for her selection to head the Domestic Policy Council.
And even though the Interior Secretary pick hasn't been announced, I was very pleased to stumble across a news item from the Native American Rights Fund, noting that their executive director, John Echohawk, is on the transition team responsible for the Interior Department. Now, that is a solidly good thing and I'm pleased to hear it. Considering the history of Interior mismanagement of the Indian Trust Funds, and the impact Interior has on the lives of Native Americans, it's good and appropriate that they have representation in the process of selecting people to staff this department.
But, and this is the point of this post, I'm pleased about that because actions, and the people you hire to carry them out, really matter. If you read more about the Cobell class action suits, and absorb the depths of mismanagement involved, there's no way anyone could look someone like Echohawk in the eye and tell him that the ideology of the person who runs Interior doesn't matter. There were treaty obligations that previous administrations didn't want to meet, and the simplest way out was to refuse to enforce them, so they didn't. Oil and gas companies ripped off tribal (and local and federal) governments for years and the federal government is now exposed to billions in liability because those officials had a very particular idea of 'what works' in government and who it should work for.
Or consider agriculture. Maybe you don't follow it much, but please take note of this, regarding the Bush administration's alleged enforcement of fair competition rules:
... [John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs] said that an audit requested by Iowa's Senators, Harkin and Grassley, of the performance of the Packers & Stockyards Administration at the USDA found that out of around 1800 investigations they claimed to have carried out between 2002 and 2005, 1739 cases included no documentation indicating that there had been any action taken. There were cases where a single phone call made to the department and noted in the records had been reported as an investigation, he said. ...
See? You don't even need signing statements in order to get around the law. There's no need for a president, or their cabinet officials, to telegraph their intention to sidestep laws that they find pesky. They just have to decide that they're not going to enforce them. What are you going to do about it? Arrest them? You and what Justice Department ... oh right, the president controls that, too.
I have no evidence that Obama means to broadly refuse to enforce the law, although now that I mention it, he did vote to exempt an entire industry from constitutional requirements that searches require court-issued warrants. My point is that the president and his cabinet departments have broad latitude over how a law is applied in practice based simply on the allocation of oversight and enforcement resources.
All it takes is a sin of omission.
So yes, the people the president picks matter. Their ideas and life stories matter. The president depends on them for advice, relies on them as filters for information in specialties that no one person can keep up on all the reading for, sends them out as intermediaries to negotiate with others and bring back people that they think he should meet.
When it comes to people I don't personally know, and that includes all these political figures, it's hard to say how much faith to have in them.
I lean towards very little. After all, I don't know them.
And considering that we're talking about an extension of power over a multitude of agencies with lots of moving parts, and the authority to interact on equal footing with whole Congress, which also has lots of moving parts, even less. When you add the firehose of information and metric ton of charm that will be unloaded on Obama and staff every time they move, even less faith than that.
It's hard to get people's attention with an email request when you're far away and someone with an expensive suit and exquisite manners is showing them a glossy, carefully edited report. You have to hope they have something to stand on, maybe ideology or principle. Perhaps the certain knowledge that if they cave they will have some angry constituency clogging the phone lines at all hours and keeping them from getting that call about a lunch appointment they were keen on. Anything greater than a sense that it's more important to have cordial relationships with the people who are in your face than it is to address the interests of people you'll never meet.
No one is so good that they can't be cracked, presuming they were of a mind to resist pressure in the first place. That's why you need an alternate source of pressure, preferably matched with their own internal sense of how things should be done.
So I have faith that politicians and their staff will do a mix of what they want, what they think they can get away with, and what they get the impression that other people want. I have faith that that you can't get what you don't ask for. I have faith that people who know they're being scrutinized are harder to tempt into misbehavior. But that's about it.
Also, and it's been a long time since I went to church, but I remember there was a bit that started, "Put not your faith in princes ..."