Tuesday, May 23, 2006

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The White House goes Vizzini on Treasury

The staff here at danieldrezner.com defines "going Vizzini" when a person or institution repeatedly uses a word or concept differently that everyone else defines it.

The White House seems to view the Treasury Secretary as a salesman's job, as opposed to a position where that requires any requisite policy knowledge, expertise, or anything of that nature. At least, that's what I divined from this Financial Times story by Demetri Sevastopulo, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Caroline Daniel:

Robert Zoellick, the US deputy secretary of state, is preparing to leave the Bush administration and has held talks with Wall Street investment banks on job options, according to people close to the administration.

Mr Zoellick, who also served as trade representative during George W. Bush’s first term as president, had hoped to replace John Snow, the Treasury secretary, whose departure has been the subject of constant speculation in Washington.

A business lobbyist with ties to the White House said Mr Zoellick was leaving the administration. A friend of Mr Zoellick said he told the White House in February of his intention to leave but that his departure was delayed because of his involvement in the Darfur peace negotiations....

The White House has been seeking to replace Mr Snow with someone who would command more respect on Wall Street, in international financial markets, on Capitol Hill and among the public.

One influential Republican with close ties to the White House said Mr Zoellick was leaving “soon” because he was not getting the Treasury job. The Republican added that the White House wanted someone who would be a better salesman. Mr Zoellick is more widely admired for his policy knowledge. (emphasis added)

The truly scary thing about that last paragraph is the White House's belief that one can find a Treasury Secretary who would be a salesman while still commanding respect in the markets. To my knowledge, the only value-added John Snow has brought to the Treasury position has been his willingness to be the Bush administration's salesman -- and I'm pretty sure the markets don't respect him all that much.

posted by Dan on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM


This is the same administration that somehow convinced Greenspan to sully his reputation and help sell the first round of tax cuts on the grounds that a continuation of the Clinton era surpluses would lead to a disorderly elimination of the federal debt. A crazy argument I know but somehow he was convinced to make it (quote below). In the eyes of Bush & co, economists are supposed to be salesmen not, say, economists.

Here's the Greenspan money quote (in characteristic Greenspan-ese not English):

"The time has come, in my judgment, to consider a budgetary strategy that is consistent with a preemptive smoothing of the glide path to zero federal debt or, more realistically, to a level of federal debt that is an effective irreducible minimum."
—Alan Greenspan, "Alan Greenspan Testifies Before the Senate Budget Committee," FDCH Political Transcripts, January 25, 2001


posted by: Crust on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

That's not really fair to Vizzini. He knew perfectly well what "inconceivable" meant, he just happened to be wrong on the facts as to the inconceivability of anything involving "The Man in Black". (That's *why* Inigo's line is funny.) If you wanted I'm sure you could find other Bush administration examples of "Going Vizzini" that were truer to the original text.

posted by: Quarterican on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Bob Zoellick was on the board of the non-profit where I worked for several years and, though I do not share his conservative views, I have the highest respect for his abilities. He is very, very talented and would make a great Secretary of the Treasury. Maybe too talented for an administration of hacks and loyalists.

posted by: SteveinVT on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

The degredation of the Treasury Secretary role is a pretty sad thing that has kept a lot of talented people from going to the Treasury. Although I'm not as inclined to criticize the administration's economic policies as Dan is, this in one point we're in complete agreement. The White House should take a lesson from the Tony Snow appointment - good people are willing to sacrifice the private sector pay and time away from family, but they need meaningful input into the jobs they'll be asked to perform. Snow made sure he would be inside the room when the details were being discussed rather than just being asked to read talking points at the lectern. Hopefully the next Treasury Secretary will negotiate a similar arrangement.

posted by: adr on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

The really sad thing is that Secretary of the Treasury would for Bob Zoellick be something of a consolation prize. Without authority to modify administration tax policy, any Treasury Secretary would be as hamstrung as an USTR negotiating trade agreements without fast track, something Zoellick surely knows. The Treasury job hasn't become a second-tier appointment in this administration because Paul O'Neill and John Snow are dopes, but because the most important economic policies have been made elsewhere.

The best position for Zoellick would be Secretary of State, now occupied by a Presidential crony who may be less completely overmatched in the internal tug of war over foreign policy than Colin Powell was but who is not really in charge of things either. Condi Rice isn't going anywhere, though, and if the FT is right an administration not overflowing with senior-level talent is about to lose one of its few stars.

posted by: Zathras on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

If they were true Vizziniites, they wouldn't have started a land war in Asia, would they?

posted by: Pithlord on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

The truly scary thing about that last paragraph is the White House's belief that one can find a Treasury Secretary who would be a salesman while still commanding respect in the markets.

Why on earth would a salesman be automatically incompatible with "commanding respect in the markets"? Why can't someone do both?

posted by: Al on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Al, people are trying to be polite. By "salesman" they mean "liar who says whatever helps the administration in the short run". Needless to say, the market didn't respect the first Bush liar after they got burned once, and it's reached the point they won't respect anybody Bush appoints because they figure if he isn't a liar Bush wouldn't appoint him.

So now what Bush needs is somebody with a strong reputation for competence and honesty, who will spend that reputation lying for Bush. And he's having trouble finding anybody who meets that need.

posted by: J Thomas on 05.23.06 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

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