When did experience become a flaw?

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Midway through Bill Clinton's first year as president, Time magazine reported that among the new president's problems was "a staff that has almost no White House or executive experience," pointing to then-political director Rahm Emanuel as a prime example.

Midway through Bill Clinton's first year as president, Time magazine reported that among the new president's problems was "a staff that has almost no White House or executive experience," pointing to then-political director Rahm Emanuel as a prime example.

Fast-forward 15 years: President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Emanuel to serve as his chief of staff. With years of high-level White House work under his belt, not to mention the connections and clout that come from having been one of the most powerful members of Congress, it would be quite a stretch to say that Emanuel lacks the experience to effectively serve Obama. So this time, some in the media have a different complaint. As CNN's Anderson Cooper put it, Emanuel is "probably the ultimate Washington insider. ... [T]he critics will say, well, look, if Obama is talking about change, why is he having a Washington insider?"

So: Emanuel was insufficiently experienced to serve as political director in 1993 -- and now we're to believe that he's too experienced in Washington to serve as chief of staff? What gives? Was there a brief window in 2003 in which Emanuel's level of experience was just right? Or is there something strange about the media's assessment of President-elect Obama's staffing decisions?

That Time assessment of Emanuel in 1993 was not unique. For 16 years, there has been near-universal agreement that the Clinton administration's early struggles (real and perceived) were in large part due to a lack of White House and Washington experience on the part of Clinton's staff.

Clinton hadn't even taken office before USA Today reported in December 1992 that the "limited Washington experience" of the incoming White House chief of staff, Mack McLarty, "raises the specter of Jimmy Carter's inexperienced inner circle." Six months later, Newsweek noted that McLarty's "lack of familiarity with Washington ways is now considered a political liability." The influential journalists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover later wrote that the choice of McLarty had been "a major surprise and the brunt of considerable criticism, on grounds that McLarty, like Clinton himself, was inexperienced in the Washington meat grinder."

By mid-1994, when a staff restructuring resulted in Leon Panetta's appointment as chief of staff, an Albany Times-Union editorial was typical of media reaction:

[Clinton's] sudden shuffle of White House staff is the latest evidence that he has finally grasped a central fact of Washington political life: It's not the place for the inexperienced, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

[...]

He's also learned that the chief of staff position is no place for a neophyte. It takes someone with Mr. Panetta's credentials as an insider to fill this pivotal post. That's all the more true at a time when the White House is trying to push through key health care and welfare legislation.

During a January 2001 look back at the Clinton presidency, Nightline host Ted Koppel summed up years of conventional wisdom: "The new president had put together a staff with virtually no experience in governing from the White House" -- something Nightline made clear was a mistake.

When President George W. Bush chose Andy Card, who had served in senior White House roles in two previous administrations, as his chief of staff, the selection -- along with decisions to put other longtime Washington insiders in key positions -- was received favorably by the news media.

Three days into Bush's presidency, CNN's Bill Schneider told viewers that "Bush is now surrounded by a lot of insider Washington deal makers, who have a lot of experience; like Dick Cheney and Andrew Card, his chief of staff; Paul O'Neill at treasury, and Donald Rumsfeld at defense. I think, a hard line and a smiling face and a willingness to make deals -- that could be a formula for success." A month later, The Washington Post ran a 2,000-word profile of Card that emphasized the benefit of Card's experience and portrayed him as bringing efficiency and order to the White House.

So, the history is clear: President Clinton was lambasted by the news media for not having enough old Washington hands on his staff; President Bush was praised for choosing veterans of previous Republican administrations.

Which brings us back to the present, and to the bizarre spectacle of journalists and pundits blasting Barack Obama for choosing staff members and Cabinet secretaries who are experienced and qualified.

Here, for example, is MSNBC's Chris Matthews, noting that Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder, John Podesta, and Rahm Emanuel either have or are reported to have roles in Obama's transition or administration:

This is what you do when you don't have elections. You simply promote the people ... who had the deputy jobs. You can do this in any bureaucratic state. You could do it in the old Soviet Union, do it anywhere you have a bureaucracy. You don't need to hold elections to promote deputies to the top job when it comes time, right? You don't need elections for this crap, do you? ... You just keep promoting people from within in any old, tired bureaucracy. That's what you do.

This is nothing short of insane.

Eric Holder, reportedly Barack Obama's choice for attorney general, did indeed have one of the "deputy jobs" at the Justice Department -- in the Clinton administration, not the Bush administration. It's a pretty safe bet that if we didn't have an election a few weeks ago -- if the Bush administration were continuing indefinitely -- Eric Holder would not be the next attorney general. It's an even safer bet that Rahm Emanuel would not be chief of staff. Much of the nation may wish the Bush administration never happened, but it did. None of the people Matthews mentioned are being "promoted from within" -- not a single one.

(Matthews, by the way, was unconcerned about hiring officials from former administrations when George W. Bush was doing the hiring: In 2001, he praised Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell as "real heavyweights in terms of experience.")

Matthews' MSNBC colleague Pat Buchanan is very much on the same page, repeatedly complaining that the incoming Obama administration will be filled with "retreads." Yes: Pat Buchanan, born and raised in Washington, D.C.; educated at Georgetown; a veteran of two GOP White Houses and himself twice a candidate for the presidency; a 20-year fixture on cable news -- that Pat Buchanan is complaining about too many "retreads."

That was a common theme on MSNBC, where longtime Washington insiders Chris Matthews, David Gregory, and Christopher Hitchens -- among others -- suggested that the choice of former Clinton administration officials was contrary to the idea of "change":

  • Chris Matthews: "The possibility that Barack Obama might pick Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state has a lot of people asking, 'Whatever happened to change, the change we can believe in?' "
  • David Gregory: "Is this change you can believe in? The Obama team is going to face these questions about big-time Clinton administration people into the fold now in some of the biggest jobs in the Cabinet. Eric Holder certainly fits that bill."
  • Christopher Hitchens: "This is the woman who, if you were for change that you can believe in, whichever change it was, you were voting against. ... [I]t's Clinton redo, not just Rahm Emanuel. Whatever this is, it's not change."

This has been a sentiment expressed commonly in the media, nowhere more frequently than on MSNBC, but the suggestion that bringing on former Clinton administration officials -- even Clinton herself -- is inconsistent with a desire for change is pure bunk. Asserting such inconsistency requires some deeply flawed assumptions: that everyone who worked in the Clinton administration is alike; that the Clinton and Bush administrations pursued identical policies with identical effectiveness; or that the desire for "change" is simply a desire for change in the types of people who hold government jobs.

People want a change in policy and a change in effectiveness. They want a change from George W. Bush, of whom disapproval is near-universal. The idea that 67 million people voted for Barack Obama because they disliked the Clinton administration is ludicrous. It ignores the wide and deep disgust with the direction Bush has taken the nation and the stunning incompetence with which he has done so. And it overlooks the obvious fact that people voted for Barack Obama because they like him and they like his policy positions.

But there is no evidence -- none -- that the nation as a whole has a deep desire to shun some of the people most qualified and experienced for administration jobs simply because they worked for Bill Clinton. Hard-core Republicans and Washington journalists may have such a desire, but that's about it.

The whining from journalists about Clinton alumni in the Obama administration is even sillier when you consider that they would presumably criticize Obama if he chose people without prior White House experience, as they criticized Bill Clinton. So the only way Obama can escape criticism is if he hires a bunch of people who worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Perversely, after two straight elections in which the American people convincingly rejected failed Republican rule, the punditocracy would be less likely to criticize Obama for abandoning his promise of change if he retained the services of the very Bush administration officials who screwed up the country so badly in the first place.

No piece of transition news has rankled the chattering class as much as the rumored selection of Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state -- not, in most cases, because they think her unqualified, but because they just don't like her. Christopher Hitchens, for one, lashed out at the news on MSNBC, leading the cable channel to treat his comments as though they were both surprising and important. They are neither. Hitchens hates the Clintons. Maybe not as much as he hates Mother Teresa, but there is little doubt that he hates them. Christopher Hitchens criticizing a Clinton is roughly as surprising as a Boston native speaking ill of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

Despite the fact that there is no indication that anyone outside of its own studios cares what Christopher Hitchens has to say about the Clintons, MSNBC has played his comments over and over again, and even invited him back on the next day to interview him about their previous interview of him. Host David Gregory explained MSNBC's obsession with Hitchens' comments by insisting -- all evidence to the contrary -- that "everybody is talking about" them.

Hitchens' bizarre comments about Hillary Clinton included his claim that he has never heard that she is respected by military leadership -- a claim that, if true, merely confirms that Hitchens knows far too little about Clinton for his assessment of her to be taken seriously. And he claimed that in 1993, Hillary Clinton instructed her husband not to intervene in the Balkans because she was afraid that it would interfere with her health-care initiative -- but the book he cited to support his claim does not do so.

As Media Matters' Eric Boehlert noted this week, the media has been essentially alone in their anguish about Clinton serving as secretary of state:

The press represents nobody but the press on this topic. Meaning, the press has no political cover on this story because there's no partisan angle to the SoS story, which means their long-running Clinton hatred is just sort of out there, exposed for all to see.

Think about. It's been virtually impossible to find any senior members of Congress--Republican or Democrat--who publicly oppose Clinton as the SoS, which in and of itself is rather astonishing.

And within the liberal blogosphere, where one might expect there to be vocal opposition to Clinton since so many within the netroots opposed her during the primaries, most A-list writers have been extremely quiet in terms of airing opposition.

[...]

So, if you're keeping score at home, that means the Obama White House is in favor of Clinton, Republicans in Congress are in favor, Democrats in Congress are in favor, and liberal activists are, essentially, in favor. (And so are most Americans.)

In the early stages of the last two administrations (both the result of "change" elections), the media made much of the importance of new presidents bringing on old hands with White House experience. Suddenly, they portray such moves as inconsistent with the idea of "change." There are really only two possible explanations for this inconsistency: They are blinded by their hatred of the Clintons, or are desperate for something -- anything -- to use as an excuse to criticize Obama.

Either way (or both), they look like fools by coming down in favor of inexperience. America is a nation at war, with stock and housing markets that are falling faster than a flock of turkeys dropped out of an airplane, a broken health-care system, and countless other problems -- and the punditocracy thinks Barack Obama should refuse to hire anyone who worked in the most successful administration of the past several decades. Incredible.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.

Posted In
Government, The Presidency & White House
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