The Corner

Magnification Effect

Many readers responded to my Sept. 3 “Magnification Effect” post. The argument I proposed was:

George W. Bush’s second-tier (i.e. below cabinet rank) administrative appointments tended to favor people who were to the right of W himself. There were exceptions of course, but that was the tendency …

Obama’s corresponding appointments have been to the left of Obama. Thus a lot of federal agencies have undergone a huge leftward swing, to the great delight of left-activist bureaucrats.

I offered Byron York’s piece on Thomas Perez, the Ministry of Love’s terrifying new diversity enforcer, as an illustration.

Leaving aside the numerous readers who emailed in with variations on “How could anyone possibly be to the left of Obama?” the following are noteworthy.

Reader A:

An anecdotal support of the proposition that leftists have overwhelmed the bureaucracy … My son is a patent attorney in Arlington. Many of his neighbors are bureaucrats. One of them worked in the Department of Interior. When Obama’s transition team came in, a number of his colleagues had to stop meeting with the Obama people because they were too extreme in their views and were, basically, nasty activists not interested in anything Bushites had to say.

According to my son, on the flip side, the person that the Bush administration put in charge of the Patent and Trademark Office was less than stellar and the Obama appointee has been better, so there is some give and take in the bureaucracy; but from my reading and listening, there has been a lot more take and the concentration of leftist activist types in the appointed realms of the Obama adminstration are doing all the work and are significantly to the left of the more mainstream cabinet secretaries.

Reader B:

You are absolutely correct — the sub cabinet officials of this Administration are far, far left of center (though I think it is a fair question to ask how far left they are of President Obama’s heart). The reverse is also true of the prior Administration. I speak from experience — I was [senior position in major domestic-civilian department] under Bush 43.

While I think this is a normal state of affairs (explained below), I also think the effect is greater with President Obama than is typical. Here’s my thinking:

Why it’s normal:

By and large, the persons willing to labor in the political vineyard are true believers. If they are of sufficient stature to be sub cabinet officials, they often are leaving more lucrative jobs behind (at least in a Republican Administration — this is less true of Democrat Administrations due to the sheer volume of leftist organizations that don’t pay much more than the government does). Bottom line — to leave behind a successful career to take on a job that puts at risk your finances and reputation, and involves climbing into the belly of a bureaucratic beast intentionally designed to make it hard to accomplish anything, one usually is motivated by a strong belief system.

There are, of course, those who are more pragmatic, those who are the professional public/private fixtures in Washington. While they tilt one way or another, they have made a business of government service when their party is at bat, and a business of servicing government when their party is on the bench. This inclines them towards compromise in order to rack up personal achievements.

The fight between these two elements can define the character of an agency and of its policy direction.

Why the Obama Administration is more off-center than usual:

First, Obama was not born of the establishment, and thus his supporters were always disproportionately true believers rather than long-time operatives. His comrades “coming up” were left-of-center academics and activists — Hillary Clinton had all the workhorses from Washington.

Second, Obama refused to appoint (with a few limited exceptions) anyone who had been a lobbyist. As a result, the professional class was largely excluded from the plum jobs they had expected. The effect of this cuts both ways from a conservative perspective — while the officials in place are therefore more radical, they were also more ineffective initially, because they literally didn’t know how to do their jobs and had to spend months learning the bureaucratic maze. The professional class can hit the ground running, but tend to advance a more moderate and bite-sized agenda.

As to what all of this portends, your guess is as good as mine. President Reagan was staffed with a lot of true believers — they were purged under Bush 41 by the professional class. Among those two, it’s pretty clear who was the more successful president. Score one for the true believers.

President Carter was staffed by outsider true believers — President Clinton had a lot of those early on but tossed them over the side after the problems of 1993-1994. I think you have to give Clinton the nod over Carter, despite his sordid personal affairs. Score one for the professional staff.

President Bush was an interesting mix of the two — mostly true believers, but a lot were tossed over the side around 2006 and the character of the White House changed on domestic policy matters. My agency was staffed with true believers and stayed so until the end — probably because [exceptional continuity of leadership in department] and [department Secretary] made a concerted effort to hire the most talented but ideologically compatible persons … in the interests of full disclosure, yes, I consider myself a true believer.

Most informative, Sir. The true believers / professionals divide is one of those permanent features of the human condition that we shall never vanquish. Probably the key to administrative success is just getting the point of balance right. As it cuts by temperament, though, there are surely more true believers on the left at all times. This follows from Conquest’s First Law, that everyone is conservative about what he knows best. Professionals know their jobs best. The history of revolutionary regimes suggests that every true believer sooner or later turns pro.

Reader C:

My observation is that government bureaucracies are stuffed with lefties because they tend to burrow in and make a career of “government service,” whereas conservatives tend to serve their time and go back to the real world. You have only to look at places like the State Department, which is so committed to leftist causes that even a strong Republican administration has great trouble controlling it.

As for current DoJ, my two friends there tell me that conservatives practically have to be invisible to avoid being assigned to the broom closet, because it’s now run by real radicals.

Reader D:

I’ve long thought that the single most consequential — and beneficial — change in the U.S. governance configuration would be the elimination of tenure for Federal employees at all levels. At-will employment, just like in the private sector in right-to-work states.

Why do you think no aspiring politician has ever hoisted this flag and run with it? How do you think the electorate would respond if one did?

I think the electorate would be surprised, as I am, to learn that federal employees have tenure. A federal job is more secure than average, I’m sure, but tenure?

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