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The Empty Bench, Vetting, and What We Want from Leaders

- February 12, 2011

I “posted”:https://themonkeycage.org/2011/02/the_empty_bench.html a couple days ago on Jon Bernstein’s “op-ed”:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/09/opinion/09Bernstein.html?_r=1&ref=opinion about how slowly Obama has nominated judges. My question in that post was: why? It’s a question that too few political reporters have explored.

Today at the grocery store I saw a former Senator who I have reason to think would talk with White House personnel on a regular basis. After my fearless wife walked up to him in the check-out line and confirmed that he was indeed this former Senator, I asked him what explains the slow pace. He gave three reasons:

* Vetting. He said this accounted for probably 50% of the problem. He said it just takes too long to vet people carefully enough to be ready to nominate them.

* Distraction. He said this accounted for 30%. By this, I took him to mean that the Obama administration has simply focused on other priorities. This could be evidence for Robert Kuttner’s “thesis” that Obama cares more about legislating.

* Coordination with the Hill. This was the remaining 20%. I’m not sure what he meant here. It wasn’t about the GOP. I think it was more the challenge of getting on the calendar amidst all the other business of Congress (much of which, of course, has also been important to Obama).

Let’s say he’s correct and vetting is paramount. If so, Jon Bernstein is vindicated many times over, having written “post after post”:http://www.google.com/search?q=vetting+site%3Ahttp%3A%2F%2Fplainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com%2F&hl=en&num=10&lr=&ft=i&cr=&safe=images&tbs= on the need to find ways to speed up vetting.

It also strikes me that the need for careful vetting reflects an ambivalence that Americans have about their leaders. On the one hand, we want people who are like us. We love politicians who seem down-to-earth, who have simple tastes, who share our hobbies, and so on. We want them to understand our lives. We want them to have the same experiences we do. Hence the shock when a sitting president seems not to recognize an ordinary grocery scanner — a story that resonated strongly even though “it was false”:http://www.snopes.com/history/american/bushscan.asp. Politicians, anxious to seem ordinary, do stuff like “this”:http://visualcultureblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/kerry-hunting.jpg. It’s embarrassing to watch.

On the other hand, we expect politicians to be better than us. People are selfish, but politicians are not supposed to be. People say things that come out wrong, or that they regret, but politicians are not supposed to. People make mistakes, but politicians are not supposed to.

I don’t want to push this contrast too far. Of course we should not exonerate politicians for every misdeed, just because “regular” people do it too. Chris Lee is not the first person to seem interested in cheating on his wife, but that doesn’t mean he should stay in office. Moreover, Americans sometimes seem willing to forgive politicians for wrongdoing. But from the perspective of a presidential administration choosing nominees, it probably seems sensible to be risk-averse, because you never know whether problems on some nominee’s old tax returns will be forgiven.

Ultimately, the need to vet nominees just to figure out whether every jot and tittle of their 1040 is in order is not only damaging to the functioning of government, but in considerable tension with the desire for ordinary leaders. If we accepted their minor foibles just as we accept our own, there wouldn’t need to be so much vetting. And maybe we would have a less empty bench.