Early in Ronald Reagan’s first term, Secretary of State Alexander Haig opened a Cabinet Room meeting by arguing for continuing the Law of the Sea Treaty, even though the president was against it, because doing so would please U.S. allies. The secretary then began to list options for modifying the treaty, until Mr. Reagan interrupted: “Uh, Al,” he said, “isn’t this what the whole thing was all about?” As the president would go on to explain, the “whole thing” was winning the election and governing as he saw fit to govern.
We were reminded of this incident recently after listening to the Democrats and their liberal counterparts in the media bemoan President Bush’s new Cabinet appointees. The new liberal line is that the president is surrounding himself with “yes men” and “flunkies” whose sole responsibility is to toe the administration line on everything. We are told that newly appointed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales owes his entire career to Mr. Bush and therefore wouldn’t dare offer a dissenting opinion. Newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice? She’s just a Bush “toady,” who will play marionette to Mr. Bush’s puppet master. Meanwhile, conservative pundit (and John Kerry supporter) Andrew Sullivan, in an article for the Sunday Times, lamented that Mr. Bush “regards his re-election as a vindication of almost everything he has done in the past four years, and so feels confident to have servants, rather than peers, to pursue the same course in the future.”
Aside from Mr. Sullivan’s unfortunate use of the term “servants,” isn’t this what the whole thing is, and always has been, all about? Since President Jimmy Carter, who asked his entire Cabinet to resign in 1979, presidents have attempted to rein in their bloated bureaucracies by appointing those who would hold White House priorities above all others. Speaking to The Washington Post, Clinton White House domestic policy chief Bruce Reed stated the obvious: “It’s a good idea to promote from within and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a Cabinet whose agenda is the same as the president’s.” Appointing qualified candidates to Cabinet positions is a president’s prerogative and the constitutional responsibility of the Executive branch.
The liberals’ recent caricature that the president has lost patience with internal debates flies in the face of their previous caricature that the president is controlled by his advisers. The truth is that Mr. Bush will continue to receive differing opinions on every decision he is asked to make. The question is whether, after the decision is made, he continues to receive dissent in the underhanded way that has characterized too much of his first term. Lest we forget that Mr. Bush is the first president to have a Harvard MBA, streamlining the top echelons of his administration is nothing more than good management. At least, this is one instance where Harvard can feel good about itself.