Vetting by trial balloon is no way to run a White House.
- By John NorrisJohn Norris is the executive director of the sustainable security and peacebuilding initiative at the Center for American Progress and the author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.
The Washington parlor game of taking umbrage with presidential appointments has been refined to an art form in recent days. Everyone from Rosa Brooks in these pages to Maureen Dowd in the New York Times has complained that the president’s team is too old, too white, too male, too much resembling a California Raisin.
Let’s be clear; Most of the Obama administration’s wounds are self-inflicted. Why it rushed to roll out white, male appointees ahead of all others is something of a mystery, and will make the appointment of highly qualified women and minorities look as if the White House is engaging in damage control. But having appointed more than 40 percent of women to political slots, the administration is not quite the boys’ club that Fox News and others are now bemoaning.
But people are missing the real reason for outrage regarding the president’s appointments in the national security arena. For secretaries of both state and defense, the administration saw fit to float out its possible nominees via extended trial balloons. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice did not even make it to being formally nominated to head the State Department before being torn to pieces, largely over a manufactured controversy surrounding her involvement in the Benghazi consulate attack.
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel has fared better, and despite a ferocious campaign by groups who clearly don’t have the president’s best interest at heart, his name was actually put forward as the nominee at defense. With Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) announcement that he would support the nomination, only a confirmation-hearing disaster or some new and ugly revelation from his past seems capable of derailing Hagel’s rise to defense secretary.
Floating policy ideas and potential legislation via trial balloon is a time honored Washington tradition. It gives an administration some plausible deniability, and provides a finger in the wind before investing heavily in any given approach.
That is all well and good. But this willingness to put forth nominees, particularly for our two most important national security posts, via trial balloon is bad policy, bad politics, and an ungodly strain for those whose names are floated.
Incidentally, the origins of real "trial balloons" shed some light on why they are fine for policies but not people. When pioneering French brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfiere first began experimenting with hot air balloons in the 1870s, they were sensible enough not to send an actual human being up in their early test flights. Despite the fact that King Louis the XVI, who was quite taken with their work, suggested the brothers send a pair of criminals aloft, the scientists thought that sending a duck, sheep, and roster airborne was the better route. The trial balloon was born.
So why is trial ballooning top cabinet appointees such a bad idea? First, it is almost entirely unnecessary. Top cabinet appointees are very rarely rejected. As Josh Marshall noted over at Talking Points Memo, only nine cabinet appointees have been defeated in U.S. history, and there has not been a major national security cabinet appointee voted down since John Tower was nominated for defense secretary under George H.W. Bush. It just doesn’t make any sense for twice-elected Barack Obama, or any other president for the matter, to give outside groups an extra chance to defeat a nominee outside of the confirmation process.
Trial ballooning nominees is especially noxious because it leaves the official whose name has been floated in no-man’s land. An official nominee has the full force of the administration behind him or her. Agencies work Capitol Hill, communication experts are mobilized, and outside groups rally to their defense. A trial balloonee gets none of that. Would interagency groups have developed a far better and far faster response to Susan Rice’s role in the response to Benghazi had she been the official nominee? Without a doubt.
Someone like Rice did not even get to fight back, and sympathetic groups largely stayed on the sidelines because they did not know what the administration’s ultimate decision would be. Groups like the National Organization for Women came out in support of Rice when her name was first floated, but it never felt like they were in full war-room mode given that she was not yet officially the president’s choice.
Look how quickly the ground shifted once Hagel went from balloon to nominee. Senate Democrats lined up behind him. Outside advocacy groups, including powerful ones like AIPAC, made clear they did not want to step into the fight. Opposition that had seemed fearful suddenly started to seem flimsy. Confirmation is certainly not a done deal, but opponents also realize that they will have to invest significant political capital if they want to derail Hagel.
Trial ballooning invites every form of character assassination because it gives opponents cost-free opportunities to snipe at the would-be nominee. If Obama thinks Rice or Hagel is the right candidate, he should nominate them — and be prepared to fight for their confirmation. Floating policy proposals may provide an administration real political cover, but when a potential nominee gets shot down, the administration looks weaker, not stronger — thus obviating the point of a trial balloon in the first place.
In an era when we routinely lament the unwillingness of many Americans to step up to public service, we should probably avoid hanging those already in public life out to dry. The rooster, sheep, and duck that the Montgolfiere brothers sent aloft in their balloon? All three survived. Susan Rice was less lucky.