Tuesday, February 26, 2008

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Let's not beatify policy wonks just yet

In the context of writing about anonymous negative leaks emanating from Hillary Clinton's campaign, Brad DeLong posits a typology of staff:

There are two kinds of people who get involved in politics--those who care about the substance of policy, and those who want to get White House Mess privileges, or as a consolation prize become media celebrities. The first kind--the policy people--will be loyal to a politician as long as he or she is trying his or her best to achieve the shared policy goals. The second kind--the spinmasters--will be loyal to a politician as long as he or she is a winner who favors them. If a politician stops looking like a winner, or if a politician starts favoring others for what they hoped would be their west wing job, they will jump ship as fast as they can--and you will start seeing the "infighting" stories.

The moral? A politician with an ideological policy compass is best off not hiring spinmasters as his or her senior aides. Hire people who care about the substance of policy instead.

I see what Brad's getting at, but in the context of a presidential campaign, methinks Brad is being a bit simplistic. Policy wonks can act strategically as well -- they just act strategically a little earlier in the process.

Let's formalize this.

Let win = p(candidate) = ex ante probability of a candidate winning an election

Let policy = 1/the square of (wonk's ideal policy point - candidate's preferred policy point) = the ideological proximity between candidate and staffer

A wonk will maximize his/her utility by maximizing win*policy.

So, when a wonk is choosing which campaign to join, ideology undoubtedly plays a role. So, however, does the assessment of the candidate's chances of victory. Indeed, as I've blogged before, one of the striking aspects of foreign policy wonks is that they've been surprisingly good at picking winners.

A policy wonk will not rarely stab a candidate in the back during a campaign -- but their prior choice of who to back is, in fact, quite strategic.

[Does this really matter? Doesn't a presidential nominee simply consolidate the cream of the crop after the primary season?--ed. Based on the last two election cycles, my answer would be no. Kerry did not do this in 2004. As for 2008, let's outsource to Michael Hirsch:

They were devotees of the cult of Clinton. Greg Craig was Bill Clinton's lawyer, defending him on TV against impeachment charges. Susan Rice was a protégée of Madeleine Albright, the 42nd president's secretary of State. Anthony Lake was Clinton's personal foreign-policy consigliere, his first-term national-security adviser. Now, however, Craig, Rice and Lake are all top advisers to Hillary Clinton's main rival, Barack Obama. In an increasingly bitter fight for the best and brightest policy advisers of Clinton's presidency, these defectors are aggressively recruiting junior- and midlevel officials from his administration.

That's provoked anger in Hillary's camp—and, Obama aides charge, threats of retaliation if she wins the nomination. "The word some people are hearing is, 'You're making a big mistake. If Barack Obama wins, he'll welcome all into his administration. But if Hillary wins, that's not going to be the case'," says a midlevel Obama adviser who would speak about infighting only on the condition of anonymity. The main Hillary enforcer has been Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton's former U.N. ambassador (and an aspiring secretary of State), says a senior adviser to Obama, who would also discuss personnel matters only anonymously. "I have had at least two people directly tell me they had been told by Holbrooke if they went with Obama, the Hillary people would not forget and forgive," says the adviser, refusing to identify them.]

UPDATE: Over at The New Republic, Noam Scheiber suggests that Obama's strength in policy wonks comes not from ideology, but from choosing people more open to ideological diversity than the Clintons:
In some respects, the sensibility behind the behaviorist critique of economics is one shared by all the Obama wonks, whether they're domestic policy nerds or grizzled foreign policy hands. Despite Obama's reputation for grandiose rhetoric and utopian hope-mongering, the Obamanauts aren't radicals--far from it. They're pragmatists--people who, when an existing paradigm clashes with reality, opt to tweak that paradigm rather than replace it wholesale. As [Richard] Thaler puts it, "Physics with friction is not as beautiful. But you need it to get rockets off the ground." It might as well be the motto for Obama's entire policy shop.

The Clintonites were moderates, but they were also ideological. They explicitly rejected the liberalism of the 1970s and '80s. The Obamanauts are decidedly non-ideological. They occasionally reach out to progressive think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute, but they also come from a world-- academic economics--whose inhabitants generally lean right. (And economists at the University of Chicago lean righter than most.) As a result, they tend to be just as comfortable with ideological diversity as the candidate they advise.

posted by Dan on 02.26.08 at 09:14 AM


You've touched on an ongoing evolution in the relationship of individual campaigns to advisors and their "teams." It used to be that there were a large collection of "experts" and "advisors" broadly defined by party who would work for whoever the nominee of the party happened to be. Primary candidates generally had small foreign policy staffs and unless a particular wonk had personally been involved in flaming attacks on another candidate the door was usually left open for people to join the "big tent".

That's definitely changing. The aspiring deputy assistant secretary of state wonk needs to pick early, and Dan's equation is useful.

But there is another factor. Wonk X must also come to the attention of the candidate to be invited to join the team at a point when it is relevant to do so--the earlier stages.

This leads to a second calculation. You want to pick a winner whose policy outcomes and methods align with your own--but you also want to consider your secondary options. Preferred option is that your candidate wins. The secondary is that you join a credible team that folds early enough to allow you to migrate (e.g. Mark Warner to Barack Obama, for instance).

If we assume that Obama and McCain are the final nominees, let's be clear-there are a number of senior Republican and Democratic advisors linked to Clinton or Romney that won't be invited into the big tent (or at most put on one of the irrelevant Committees of 200 people). It's one reason why we've had so much attention paid to who the advisors are for the candidates so far. It also means that these calculations Dan notes started early on--the meetings were taking place starting late 2006 and early 2007. Wonk X starting today better think about 2012.

posted by: Nikolas Gvosdev on 02.26.08 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

"Doesn't a presidential nominee simply consolidate the cream of the crop after the primary season?"

Depends on the nominee. Kerry wasn't exactly Mr. Serious Policy Person, and Hillary's camp is known to be vindictive, loyalist, top-heavy with old-guard establishment types, etc. So the fact that they didn't doesn't mean that Obama wouldn't. Actually, my sense that he is more reasonable and pragmatic, both on substance and staffing issues, is one of the reasons I support him. I think he would be significantly less likely to hold a grudge against people than she would be, and significantly more likely to be able to distinquish staff wheat from staff chaff than Kerry was. A wonk I trust said the other day, "you know, he's the only politician I've met who, when you have a conversation, wants to know what you think rather than just tell you what he thinks." Yes, nobody knows nothing about what will happen once he's elected. But I think some high hopes are justified...


posted by: lamont cranston on 02.26.08 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

All this goes back at least to Jackson's (Andrew, not Jesse)"kitchen cabinet". Arthur Schlesinger's journal provides some insights into the calculations of a wonk--as in how one manages gracefully to evolve from a Stevenson man to a Kennedy man without totally burning bridges. (He wasn't always successful.)

A query--would we predict that a Clinton administration would, as did GWB's, frown on leaks while an Obama's administration would have a flood? After success and high poll numbers, what is the best way to avoid leaks--have an enforcer or seduce people?

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 02.26.08 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

I expect an administration led my Sen. Clinton would regard leaks in a very Bush-like way, reflecting her very Bush-like preoccupation with message discipline and her equally Bush-like disdain for the media.

Sen. Obama would if elected be making up a lot of things on the fly, and this is probably one of them. I expect he'd be disappointed by leaks but unsure of how to deal with them; one temptation he would face is not delegate leak deterrence to a subordinate, whose approach to the subject there is no way for us event to guess at.

A McCain administration would probably have so much information leaking right from the top that lower-level leakers would find it hard to keep up.

posted by: Zathras on 02.26.08 at 09:14 AM [permalink]

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