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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Typology of Politicization

The end of the Gonzales era at the Justice Department has spurred a lot of spin-off stories, most notably about the Bush administration’s systemic habit of politicizing the executive branch of the federal government, with the U.S. Attorney scandal being the most recent example. This is a phenomenon that has been apparent from the very beginning of the Bush presidency, driven from the very top (see Bruce Reed’s amusing and insightful 2004 Washington Monthly piece on the “hack/wonk” imbalance in the Bush White House).
But it’s useful to drill a bit deeper and sort out the various types of political appointments that Bush and his predecessors–and indeed, executives at the state and local government levels–often make, in order to assess their actual impact.
I’d suggest three categories: true hacks; commissars; and ideological transformers.
True hacks are political people (operatives, supporters, even donors, or sometimes their family members) who are given public employment as a reward or as an inter-campaign holding pen, regardless of their qualifications. This is old-fashioned “patronage” of the sort that various waves of civil service reforms dating from the nineteenth century were intended to rein in (leading most often to the creation of even more lavish political jobs at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid). It’s no secret that latter-day Republican administrations in Washington have infested federal agencies with a disproportionate number of true hacks, for a simple reason: if you don’t believe in various agencies’ missions, and don’t have the guts or political capital to abolish them, then it’s tempting to treat them as jobs programs for your friends and supporters.
The Bush administration’s most notable exercises in mass hack hirings were at FEMA during the Michael Brown era, and in Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority occupation regime in Baghdad. It’s probably not an accident that these agencies were responsible for two of the more spectacular failures of the entire Bush presidency.
Commissars are appointees placed in key agency positions to ensure that the political and ideological goals of the administration are pursued regardless of the agency’s formal mission. These are invariably the most hated of political appointees, since they are by definition disloyal to their ostensible superiors, and often spend most of their time keeping tabs on their colleagues. Monica Goodling, the Justice Department White House liaison who’s been in hot water over the U.S. Attorney Scandal, was the perfect example of the Commissar. (Going back a ways, Paul Craig Roberts, now a scourge of the neocons, was installed at Treasury in Ronald Reagan’s first term to ensure fidelity to the supply-side gospel, as noted in David Stockman’s definitive account of the era).
Ideological transformers are appointees, usually at a very high level, whose job is to actively subvert or fundamentally change an agency’s mission, without benefit of legal authorization. If you look at the high subcabinet posts for virtually every agency that regulates corporations in every Republican administration since Reagan’s election, you find a lot of such appointees. Bush 43 has famously made a habit of appointing people to regulatory commissions and science review boards who are foxes-in-the-henhouse, fighting their jobs instead of performing them.
(One of the most bizarre examples of this kind of appointee occurred in 1983, when Reagan named Alfred S. Regnery–of the right-wing publishing family–to head the Office of Juvenile Justice, responsible for anti-child-abuse programs. During Regnery’s confirmation hearings, someone spotted his car at the Capitol sporting a bumper sticker that read: “Have you slugged your kid today?”).
While the current administration hasn’t, to my knowledge, created any new categories of political appointees, there is one unique aspect to its deployment of them. Typically, political appointments soar at the beginning of a presidency, when there are tons of campaign staff to offload; high levels of paranoia about the loyalities of holdover officials; and all sorts of ambitious ideological goals to implement. They tend to tail off later on, though sometimes you see a fair number of true hacks who haven’t gotten rewarded yet get last-minute placeholder jobs. But as the U.S. Attorney scandal itself has illustrated, this administration seems to be engaging in wholesale politicization of the executive branch at an undiminished pace nearly seven years into its tenure. Perhaps the Bushies think the next president will be a Republican who will continue these practices. Or perhaps they simply want to do as much damage to the integrity and competence of the federal government as they possibly can, out of sheer spite and habitual recklessness.

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