A handicapped cabinet: Running a presidential slate is a bad idea

The independent media/polling firm Rasmussen Reports recently decided, for whatever reason, to conduct a poll on whether people want presidential candidates to announce their cabinet choices before the election. While the idea of having a cabinet vetted by the voters may seem appealing, the reality of making those choices during the heat of a campaign has serious drawbacks, both politically and in terms of effective governance after the election.

First off, the Rasmussen poll did not ask whether or not cabinet choices would affect people’s vote, nor did it ask where the picks would fall in the broader issue spectrum. Of course, the answer to that depends heavily on who the candidates announce for each slot. But I believe most of the impact would come from how the choices reflect the candidate’s judgment, i.e. Sarah Palin. In the end I can’t imagine cabinet picks mattering more to most voters than, say, how they think each candidate would handle the current economic crisis.

Which brings up another point — since the collapse of Wall Street earlier this month, people have heard far more from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson than many of us ever thought we would. Combined with the extensive visibility of Bush’s cabinet during the lead-up to war in Iraq, Americans now have a more acute sense of what the president’s cabinet actually does than they did eight years ago.

But do we really want candidates spending their time on cabinet picks during the heat of a campaign? What kind of choices would that lead them to make? With nearly all the political oxygen taken up by the two major party candidates, and what’s left by their running mates, the American people would not have a chance to learn more about the picks than a one-liner in the national news — if that. Cabinet picks would only get air time if they did or said something incredibly controversial, or if someone managed to dig up something nasty from their past.

That would cause candidates to pick entirely bland and boring cabinets, chosen for their inoffensiveness rather than their ability to inspire, lead and do the job. Additionally, this could create a more partisan cabinet, with more cases of politically motivated public appearances like the ones for Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave in 2006. Announcing a cabinet ahead of time would certainly have hamstrung Lincoln, whose “Team of Rivals” met with a rather lukewarm reception.

Interestingly, the British have what they term a “shadow cabinet” within the major opposition party. This consists of a group of senior opposition leaders who speak for the party on matters relating to each cabinet post. Generally, though certainly not always, when the opposition party gains control of government, the “shadow ministers” assume their cabinet posts. However, because the British operate under a parliamentary system, all cabinet members already serve in Parliament (either in the House of Commons or the House of Lords) and have been thoroughly vetted over a lifetime of public service.

In the states, anyone can become a member of the cabinet as long as the Senate approves — that whole checks and balances thing makes it a wee bit trickier on this side of the pond. Making things even more difficult, some cabinet members could potentially come from the opposition party, something that would not surprise me in an Obama administration. The likelihood of a Democrat (besides Lieberman) or a Republican publicly accepting a post from the other party during a hotly contested race stands at just about a negative bajillion.

Asking presidential candidates to chose their cabinet before the election not only has the potential to hurt the campaign, but would negatively impact both the quality of our cabinet officials and the quality of our government. The cabinet is simply too important to politicize, so my apologies to the 53 percent of Americans who disagree, but cabinet appointments should wait until after the election.

Colorado Independent’s blogumnist (blogger-columnist) Jeff Bridges has worked in Democratic politics for the last 10 years, serving as communications director for two congressional races in Colorado and two governors races in the Deep South. Bridges also worked as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C., with a focus on military and small-business issues.

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