Gen. Hayden and The Claimed Irrelevance of Presidential Appointments

Since when did people start believing that high-level appointments and Cabinet secretaries were irrelevant?

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

A report from U.S. News & World Report
today suggests that Obama is considering having Gen. Michael Hayden
-- Bush's former NSA Director -- remain on as CIA Director. I have no
idea whether that report is true, but here is what I do know:

(1) In May, 2006, Barack Obama voted against confirming Gen. Hayden as CIA Director. Obama was one of only 15 Senators to oppose Hayden. In his speech on the Senate floor
explaining his vote, Obama emphasized Hayden's role as Bush's NSA
Director in implementing and overseeing Bush's illegal warrantless
surveillance programs -- programs Obama has repeatedly decried as an
assault on the rule of law.

In fact, Obama, while acknowledging in his speech that Hayden was "qualified," described Hayden -- accurately -- "as the architect and chief defender
of a program of wiretapping and collection of phone records outside of
FISA oversight." Obama said his vote against Hayden's confirmation was
necessary "to send a signal to this Administration that even in these
circumstances President Bush is not above the law" and "in the hope
that [Hayden] will be more humble before the great weight of
responsibility that he has, not only to protect our lives, but to
protect our democracy."

If, less than 3 years later, Obama chooses as his CIA Director the very same Michael Hayden -- who, during his confirmation hearing, justified Bush's illegal NSA spying and said how proud he was to help implement it [to say nothing of his (at best) equivocations on torture]
-- then it should be quite . . . let us, for the moment,
say "interesting" . . . to watch him and his most loyal supporters
explain and justify that.

(2) Until five weeks ago, I literally
never heard anyone claim -- in either party -- that it was irrelevant
who the President appointed to his Cabinet and other high-level
positions. I never heard anyone depict people like the Defense
Secretary and CIA Director as nothing more than impotent little
functionaries -- the equivalent of entry-level clerical workers -- who
exert no power and do nothing other than obediently carry out
the President's orders.

In fact, I seem to recall pretty vividly all sorts of confirmation fights led by Democrats over the last eight years (John Aschroft, John Bolton, Alberto Gonzales, Michael Hayden, Steven Bradbury)
-- to say nothing of the efforts to force the resignation or dismissal
of people such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Gonzales -- that
were based on exactly the opposite premise: namely, that it does
matter who is empowered to lead these agencies and departments, and
specifically, that their ideology not only matters, but can, by itself,
warrant rejection. Nobody ever claimed that Ashcroft, Bolton or Hayden
were "unqualified." It was their beliefs and ideology that rendered
them unfit for those positions, argued Democrats.

When and why did everyone suddenly decide to change their
minds about this and start repeating the mantra of some Obama
supporters that high-level appointments are irrelevant because only the
President counts? For the people who now make this claim to justify
Obama's appointments, were any of them objecting during any of the
above-listed confirmation fights that those fights were wasteful and
unjustified because presidential appointments are irrelevant?

Other than Brennan (and Hayden, if that happens), I
haven't felt very strongly about any of Obama's appointments, mostly
because they're roughly what I expected. And it is true that a
President's actions matter more than his appointments (which isn't
saying that the latter is irrelevant). But I nonetheless find it
striking how quickly people are willing to spout a position that they
never previously believed and even is at radical odds with what they've
said and done in the past -- Cabinet appointments are irrelevant! --
simply because the new position justifies what someone they like is

(3)Numerous others have already said most of what needs to be said about the repellent decree issued by Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand
that "this is not a time for the left wing of our Party to draw
conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that
President-Elect Obama is making." Apparently, we all have to wait just
a little bit -- just until they "get our economy moving, bring our
troops home safely, fix health care, end climate change and restore our
place in the world" -- before we can opine on our President's actions
and decisions (Bill Kristol issued a similar judgment in 2007 about war opponents who refused to wait and see whether the Surge would work: it's "so irresponsible that they can't be quiet for six or nine months").

But what I want to focus on is this justifying claim
Hildebrand offers as to why liberal concerns about Obama's appointments
are misplaced:

Some believe the appointments generally
aren't progressive enough. . . . The problems I mentioned above and the
many I didn't, suggest that our president surround himself with the most qualified people to address these challenges.

Since when did "qualifications" become the all-powerful
trump card when it comes to political leaders -- even more than one's
political beliefs, principles and ideology? As I wrote before, it's a complete myth, a manipulative trick, to claim that "competence" and "ideology" have nothing to do with one another.

If "qualifications" were all that mattered, Barack Obama
wouldn't be President. People voted for him despite his lack of
qualifications, not because of his abundance of them. Does anyone
dispute that Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, and David Addington,
and John Ashcroft and Hank Paulson were supremely "qualified" in every
sense that this term is normally meant? What made them atrocious
wasn't their lack of qualifications but their ideology and belief
system, and what made Obama attactive to many people wasn't that he was
"most qualified" but was his ideology and belief system.

This idea that "qualifications and pragmatism matter, not
ideology" is a meaningless buzzphrase. It's pure nonsense designed to
neuter any criticism of Obama's appointments. If someone wants to say
-- as Atrios did today
-- that they're willing to tolerate the exclusion of liberals from
Obama's cabinet and even demonization campaigns against the Left if
that's the vehicle and strategy for enacting a progressive agenda, that
at least is a rational assessment (though I think there's serious costs
to encouraging not only Republicans and the media, but also Democrats,
to all join together to agree that the one unspeakable bogeyman is the

But this broader point that pragmatism and "competence"
are being valued above ideology is incoherent and manipulative. When
it comes to political power, this claim is devoid of meaning.
Ideology, by definition, always matters when it comes to what political
leaders do. And yet -- just like the brand new claim that high-level
appointments don't matter -- many, many people have been easily
persuaded to recite this "competence-over-ideology" mantra over and

UPDATE: The top diary currently on Daily Kos dismisses criticisms of Obama's appointments by explaining that Obama is going to be just like Don Corelone in The Godfather -- he's going to issue orders and everyone around him will simply comply (h/t Scientician).
While lots of whiny liberals are running around stupidly mouthing off
with their opinions about Obama's appointments, the diarist excitedly
explains: "Don Obama is sitting calmly at the top working quietly to
put his plan into place."

UPDATE II: Digby speculates
about the interplay between the withdrawn Brennan nomination and this
new Hayden rumor, and also documents -- significantly -- that Hayden
has emphatically maintained in the past that the CIA must not be bound
to the interrogation techniques in the Army Field Manual and that it
cannot effectively do its job if it is. That would be a very odd
posture for a CIA Director in an administration headed by a President
who repeatedly vowed to impose the Army Field Manual on the CIA as the most effective way to end the torture regime.

UPDATE III: Spencer Ackerman thinks
"there's no chance that Obama would actually pick Hayden" and that the
report is being floated by Hayden allies inside the CIA. I, too, would
be surprised (mildly, not overwhelmingly) if Obama asked Hayden to
remain even temporarily, but as the Brennan incident demonstrated,
there is real value in expressing objections to highly objectionable
appointments before they are announced. Reports of prospective
nominees are leaked precisely to see if there is formidable and intense
opposition. While it's important not to assume every one of these
rumors is true (which is why I noted in the first paragraph that this
one may very well not be), this is the time to express and build
opposition to potential appointees, not after the nominee is announced.

It's worth noting that disagreements and objections directed at political leaders aren't a bad thing. An astounding 79% of the public
approves of Obama in the transition. Having "the Left" exert pressure
to ensure attention is paid to its political values isn't going to
cause a collapse of the Republic or even the Obama presidency. To the
contrary, as The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder observes,
the Left's objections have actually been quite muted, but provide an
important benefit: "to prevent Obama from ruling as a royalist, a
little cross-pressure is probably a good thing."

Even in this New Era of Trans-Partisan Harmony, there's
nothing wrong with citizens objecting to what political leaders do and
trying to pressure them to move in directions that they perceive are
better. That's actually called "democracy." As upsetting as that
disharmony apparently is to some, it's actually far preferable than the
alternative, where everyone lines up behind a leader and agrees to
remain respectfully silent and trusting in his superior judgment.
Between excessive citizen activism and excessive trust or passivity,
the former is far preferable to the latter.

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