Saturday, July 29, 2017

All Hail The New Chief Of Staff!

Quite the news week right? I think my favorite explanation of news cycles in the Age Of Trump is that their not really news cycles at all, but rather "that episode from Battle Star Galatica where the Cylons attack every 33 minutes."

I'm still trying to digest what the downfall (knock on wood!) of Trumpcare means, and why it happened (although I think my blog post from the winter held up pretty well.) So rather than dwell on that stuff let's talk about White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus getting the hook on Friday afternoon and what comes next.

To begin with it's important to realize that Reince, whatever you think of him, is simply not the sort of person you'd want to be White House chief of staff for the simple reason that he doesn't really have any experience working as a government professional at all. He is, after all, a party and campaign guy, not a person like Jack Lew (or Howard Baker if you'd prefer a Republican) who has spent a lifetime running government agencies, serving in Congress, or dealing with complex policy issues. But rather Reince has spent his life doing what party big wigs do. That is raise money, give rah rah speeches, shake hands with junior staffers in obscure field offices and such.

In short, he was always a terrible choices to be a White House chief of staff for any president, but for a new president with no experience in public office and the...uh...personality traits of Donald Trump, he was an even worse pick.

Which is pretty indicative of the whole staffing problem this administration is facing. Greg Kroger, a political scientist at the University of Miami, and Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who writes for Bloomberg, talked about this on first and so far only Mischeifs of Faction Podcast. To begin with this administration, right down through the agencies is pretty understaffed over all. And while most of the White House staff jobs are filled, you can basically lump most staffers there into a couple of big buckets (they starts on this about 39 minutes in) none of which are very good at running a modern White House.

I'll list these groups out with fun colorful names of my own devising:
  • "The Rels" ie people related to the president (Jared, Ivanka, Junior etc)
  • "The Hacks" ie campaign and RNC people (Reince and folks he brought with him)
  • "The Traders" ie all the Wall Street people (Anthony Scaramucci comes to mind but there are a bunch of others)
  • "The Breitbarts" ie the people who mix pseudo-intellectual claptrap with bigotry and showbiz style flair (Bannon is the classic example, Gorka as well)
To be fair people like this have been in past administrations (Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General etc), but the big thing to remember here is that these groups are basically all that Trump's got. As Greg points out even Vice President Pence, who's suppose to be the adult in the room or something, was much more of a bomb thrower in Congress than a serious legislator who'd craft policy or make deals.

Add into this mix the fact that Trump himself seems to be trying to run his White House in a chaotic The-Wolf-Of-Wall-Street style like he did his various companies. WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, had a nice article about this whole mess featuring an interview with a woman named Gwenda Blair who's written some biographies on The Donald and other Trumps:
"I think [Donald Trump] may be the only person in the White House who is really happy with all the chaos," she noted. "Because that makes him the one fixed point. It makes everybody scared ... and super loyal to him, not to each other."

Creating that kind of chaotic and hyper-competitive dynamic is part of Trump's management style. "He calls is 'creative competition,'" Blair continued. "He has people on his staff, sets them against each other, sometimes giving them overlapping responsibilities ... It's exactly the same M.O. as throughout his career." 
This is important because as as Jonathan Bernstein points out in the podcast during the second half of the 20th Century there was a big debate about how best to organize an White House among students and practitioners of presidential politics. Republicans adopted a model created by Eisenhower which he brought to his administration from his career in the Army. In the "Ike model" you basically have a strong person in charge, a "Chief of Staff" as it were, to run the the place. While Democrats kept trying to recreate FDR's model of decentralized system of different people, competing with each other, a "team of rivals" as it were.

The reality though is that Democrats could never recreate FDR's model, in no small part because FDR hardly had what we would consider a modern White House staff at all in the first place. So whenever a new Democrat came into the White House they'd try to set up a "team of rivals" and it wouldn't work, and by the end of that particular administration they'd have reverted to the "Ike model."

This whole debate was thought ended for good in 2009 when Obama adopted the "Ike model" right off the bat in the form of making Rahm Emanuel a powerful chief of staff.

As Bernstein said in the podcast, and remember this recorded back in the spring, the crazy thing here is Trump seems to be trying to recreate the failed model that clearly doesn't work in the modern age. Add in a staff as I outlined above and of course disaster ensues. As he put it, "So there's nobody who knows anything basically, and guess what? It's disorganized and it doesn't work! Because we know that it doesn't work with quality people. Bill Clinton had quality people, LBJ had quality people, it doesn't work."

In other words Trump doesn't have enough staff, the staff he does have are really bad choices for their jobs, and it's all set up in a haphazard way. So yes of course it's a disaster zone.

But in the here and now we're getting a new CoS in the form of former four star Marine general, and one time Secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly. I don't really have a whole lot to say, other than that I think some of the chatter on Twitter that this is some prelude to a military coup as being very silly. Trump can't even get the military to enforce his "trans ban", let alone arrest Congress for him.

Will Kelly be able to turn things around for Trump? Who knows, but there are a few reasons to have hope.

To begin with never underestimate the bureaucratic and organizational skills one can pick up in a successful military career. So maybe he could sideline "The Rels", ease out "The Traders", have Bannon and Gorka thrown out the building, and keep the best of the junior hacks while finding important jobs for the others in the Office of Insular Affairs and other such places.

All while Kelly might be able to bring in new people to take over. Maybe Kelly could set up a organized professional White House with clear rules about who reports to who. While also making the president stop watching hours of cable news and instead read briefing materials and such. Maybe Kelly could then get people to have loyalty to each other as a team, instead of their own selfish career ambitions, and in turn have the President reward that loyalty with trust and forgiveness for minor screw ups. Maybe he could get Donald Trump, to, like Prince Hal, contemplate the tremendous responsibilities of the office he now inhabits and cast off his petty vanity and selfish impulses, and, like Prince Hal did, ride forth to defend the Kingdom in this great hour of national need!

Can Kelly do it?!? Is this dream possible!?!?!?

As Theodoric of York would put it the most likely answer is "Naaaaaahhh!"

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