Filling the Cabinet
What's a conservative to do?


Over the weekend, the chattering class was buzzing that Hillary Clinton might be secretary of state. That rumor aside, what grounding principles are important for conservatives to bear in mind as we watch the formation of the Obama administration? Is there any constructive role we can play? National Review Online gathers advice.

Alvin S. Felzenberg
As they contemplate how best to spend their wilderness years, conservatives would do well to study how Barack Obama conducted his campaign and builds his administration. Thus far, both efforts have been flawless. Early picks of Rahm Emmanel, Ron Klain, and Greg Craig, three battle-tested veterans of Clinton-Gore days, in top staff positions signals that this will be a “no nonsense” well-disciplined operation. If their immediate task proves to be the reining in of left-leaning House committee chairs, who owe Obama nothing and plan to be in town long after he departs (whether at the end of four or eight years), conservatives may want to lend the new team a hand. They did, after all, work with some of this crew to balance the budget, reform welfare, and pass NAFTA in years past. If the chairmen are allowed to run the roost, conservatives could well step aside and let nature take its course in the short-run. (Their voting ”present,” would be a sign that would not be lost on the new president, who, after all, has some experience in that practice. Besides, how could the shrunken GOP minority be labeled ”obstructionist” if they just got out of the way?) 

Leaking that Hillary Rodham Clinton is under consideration for secretary of State was a brilliant maneuver. If she is offered the post and accepts, Obama would have successfully boxed in the only Democrat capable of mounting a serious challenge to his renomination, while availing himself of her talents. If she is offered the post and declines, her supporters will have little cause for complaint. More to the point, the rumors give the press something to talk about, while distracting them from other developments taking place at Operation Obama in Chicago. Rest assured that, should this marriage of convenience take place, Hillary can expect better treatment from the Obama operatives (who were once Clinton operatives), than Palin received from McCain operatives.

In the idea department, conservatives need to focus on issues of concern to the American people. That would be a welcome change once the crowd that yanked the terms “small government,” “fiscal prudence,” and “administrative competence” from both the conservative lexicon and pantry with the whole world watching finally leaves town. Tending to the public’s concerns means forging an economic agenda (and which should be more than just preserving the Bush tax cuts), a sensible energy policy (“let the drilling begin,” go nuclear, and set a date certain for energy independence), advancing a health-care plan that calms anxieties and preserves choice (no single payer and an end to employer-tied benefits), and combatting international terrorism (an issue that is certain to place high again on lists of voter concerns).

Just as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton repositioned their respective parties by embracing parts of the legacies of Thatcher and Reagan, conservatives have to decide what course makes sense for them to pursue in the 21st century. They can begin by emulating Obama by reaching out to new and young voters in unconventional ways. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, conservatives should be using the Internet to raise funds, build at the grassroots, recruit candidates, and organize. Earlier this year, Obama startled some of his supporters when he declared that Ronald Reagan was a “transformational president” in ways Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were not. Conservatives should show that they appreciate the compliment Obama paid the Gipper by doing what Reagan did, repositioning their movement to address new sets of challenges. It’s time to go to work.

– Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of
The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.

John Hood
Barack Obama and the Democrats have won full control of policymaking power in Washington. It is critically important for conservatives to accept this fact graciously while watching carefully for signs of where the Obama administration may be headed and how we might play a role in nudging him towards a centrist course.

I’ve noticed that many conservative commentators are now deriding Obama’s commitment to “change” by citing the number of former Clinton advisers he seems to be tapping or heeding. The joke is lame and the sentiment misplaced. Faced with a choice between Clintonism and the hard Left, there’s really no question what path Obama should be urged to take. Clintonism at least means a respect for sound money, a reticence to enact radical expansions of government power in massive doses, and a hesitancy to pick trade wars with Europe, Asia, and Latin America in the midst of a global economic meltdown. The hard Left wants to turn back the clock to the prevailing economic pieties of the 1930s. Yes, they are that deluded.

There’s good reason to believe Obama may end up embracing Clintonist policies instead of, well, Pelosian ones. The electorate has voted out George W. Bush’s Republican party. It didn’t vote for a new New Deal. Obama, he of the middle-class tax cut, certainly didn’t promise one. Nor did the moderate-to-conservative Democrats who gave their party control of Congress. If Obama’s smart, he won’t go beyond his mandate and provoke a political backlash against his party in 2010 like Clinton did in 1993-94.

And we know Obama’s smart. To become president, he had to outmaneuver both the Clintons and the Republican party, the two most successful political teams on the national stage in the past three decades.

– John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

Andrew C. McCarthy
I expect the Obama appointment strategy to be two-fold . . . and clever. Step One: Establish the precedent for easy confirmations with ostensibly moderate, center-left nominees who are popular enough in the senate that the RINO bloc will quickly get on board. This would establish a working coalition for Obama in the upper chamber (not just on nominations but on legislation) and discourage the remaining GOP ranks from using the filibuster or other procedural stalls.

Step Two: Obama will move the country leftward with the appointments that really matter in government: the hundreds of second- and third-tier (and below) executive agency appointments — the deputy-secretaries, under-secretaries, and associate-this or -that for policy, etc., who work where the rubber of big government meets the road. They are the ones who implement policy, who have a huge hidden role in making policy, and who control the hiring of the thousands of federal employees who do not require confirmation. They include judicial appointees to the district courts (the lowest federal courts) who rule on the vast majority of federal issues — few of which are actually ever appealed. These are the nominations that draw precious little attention, that usually move through the senate on a peremptory voice-vote. It is at this lower-court, administrative-agency, faceless-bureaucracy level that I would expect to see a substantial infusion of hard-Left operatives. This moves the executive branch leftward in stealth, largely by determining from the ground up what policy options are presented to higher officials in government.

The conservative strategy should also be two-fold. First, the RINOs need to know the party is over. If they side with Democrats to grease the wheels for Obama’s incremental statism, they need to be penalized in every way available to the GOP leadership — including primary challenges, loss of intra-party status, and the burying of their desired legislation. A good place to start — even before Obama is sworn in – would be the Dems’ Old Reliable: Sen. George Voinovich (RINO, OH), who is poised to support the preposterous bailout of the auto industry (i.e., the plan to make taxpayers and well-run industries pay for the non-competitive sloth forged by GM, Ford, Chrysler, the UAW and congressional Democrats — soon to be followed by the taxpayer bailout of big cities ruinously governed by Democrats across America).

Secondly, the GOP should be in no rush to get Obama’s nominations in place. We should linger over them both to put down markers about the policy fights we intend to wage and to show Democrats there is a price to be paid for the last eight years, when they repeatedly refused to confirm perfectly qualified nominiees. Moreover, Republicans must do what they have failed historically to do: shine a bright spotlight on the lower-tier executive appointments. Whether the issue is the fairness doctrine, Iran, counterterrorism strategy, the further socializing of the economy, or the rest of what is currently on the horizon, these are the appointees who will shape Obama policy — and who will tell us the most about where Obama actually wants to take the country.

National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy chairs the FDD’s Center for Law & Counterterrorism and is the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (Encounter Books 2008).

Mark Moyar
Obama’s actions since November 4 have done nothing to allay my suspicions that he will govern from the left. Among the principal causes of my doubts is his highly touted, but little-examined, academic background. With academia largely devoid of conservatives, many a liberal academic has been lulled into viewing all liberal ideas as sacrosanct and all conservative ideas as oppressive. That attitude permeates Obama’s comment, made to his university’s newspaper in 1996, that “bipartisanship usually means Democrats ignore the needs of the poor and abandon the idea that government can play a role in issues of poverty, race discrimination, sex discrimination or environmental protection.” The Left would benefit politically from conservatives in academia — their presence would discourage the dogmatic turns to the left of 1977, 1993, and, I suspect, 2009, boons for Republicans. The Right would benefit politically, by strengthening its ideas. The shortage of conservative intellectuals, a serious if overstated problem, is not the fault of talk radio, but of an academic establishment that refuses to expose students to Edmund Burke, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Thomas Sowell. Conservatives should spend less time criticizing each other, and more time trying to fix the source of our intellectual troubles, America’s educational system.

– Mark Moyar is the author of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965.

John J. Pitney
In the weeks ahead, we should stay grounded in patriotism and realism. When we debate our liberal friends, let’s never refer to “your president.” Liberals sometimes did that with Bush, just as some conservatives did with Clinton. Barack Obama will be our president, too. It’s a bad idea to indulge in automatic opposition to anything he does. Whenever he proposes policies that make conservative sense, we should work for their success and encourage him to do more of the same. That’s the patriotic thing to do. It’s the politically smart thing, too. Supporting his good decisions gives us more credibility in opposing his bad ones.

And in the spirit of realism, we must anticipate that we will make mistakes — perhaps in abundance. He will be the first president of the nuclear age with neither military nor executive experience. As the history of that age has shown, experience hardly guarantees success. But common sense suggests that inexperience can mean trouble. We have to monitor the administration closely, and speak out forcefully when it goes wrong.

As the loyal opposition, can we be full-throated patriots and sharp-eyed critics at the same time? As President-elect Obama has said so many times: Yes we can!

– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.