“The Paper Chase,” The American Prospect, December 2008.
In Washington, everyone’s two cents can make a lot of change.
The last time Democrats took the White House, they managed, in the immortal words of George W. Bush, a “heckuva job.” During the Clinton administration’s famously rocky transition, one White House alumna saw signs of trouble early. “The day after the election, we were getting calls from leaders all over the world,” she says, but apparently Clinton’s team hadn’t realized the State Department now worked for them. Martha Kumar, founder of the bipartisan White House Transition Project, recalls the story of one Clinton flack who “walked into his office and saw there were six phone lines and all of the phones were ringing.” Tellingly, only one question came to his mind: “If I answer them, what do I say?”
Now that Barack Obama has won the White House, the rapture of those who put him there will be eclipsed only by the countrywide yawp for justice deferred. The stakes today are even higher than in 1992 — Obama faces two wars, a financial meltdown, mounting inequality, restless enemies, and a simmering planet — and progressives have been sweating ink to ensure that they aren’t caught flat-footed again. No fewer than 20 progressive think tanks, issue groups, media outlets, and ad-hoc coalitions have already or will soon release presidential transition plans. These open letters to the next president boast sweeping and ambitious titles: “Investing in America’s Future”; Mandate for Change; “Opportunity ’08”; Rebooting America; “Making Sense”; “Transitions in Governance” — as do their sponsors: the Campaign for America’s Future, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Progressive Policy Institute, the New America Foundation, USAction, the journal Democracy, the Brookings Institution. Even the Heritage Foundation has a “to-do list.” (Don’t try to mix and match.) “There will be dozens and dozens of these things,” says Peter Wallison, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute once rumored to be on the shortlist for a McCain Cabinet.
Many of these transition agendas take their cues from the conservative movement, which, following Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, felled thousands of trees in the name of Republican institution-building. Likewise, the exile of the Bush years has produced an architecture of progressive ideas that did not exist for the Democratic presidents of the 20th century, including Clinton. “Every group worth their salt has a plan for transition,” says Mark Green, president of Air America radio and collaborator on the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Change for America, perhaps the largest and most influential of the transitional care packages. “Let’s say you care about soil erosion. Well, you sort of have to say, ‘Here’s our plan to reduce soil erosion in the United States.'”
The left, preening for its close-up, has recognized that there is virtue in being prepared. So this year, that which can be tabbed, spiral-bound, or indexed has been. The ancient tradition of presidential advice-giving, once analog, is now industrial. The brief taste of change that Democrats enjoyed after reclaiming Congress in 2006 has only fueled this rush to paper Obama’s desk. As Green says, in his best announcer voice, “To the winner goes the policy spoils.”
Today’s Democratic Party tends to look to two periods in history when we took major steps toward a more liberal society: from 1933 to 1938, when the New Deal reforms were enacted (Social Security, a minimum wage, health and safety standards on the job) and from 1965 to 1966, when the Great Society (the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts) was passed into law. For many liberals, 2009 portends the Next Deal (which is, naturally, the name of the USAction coalition’s transition agenda). Robert Borosage, president of Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), knows we’ve experienced “a sea change election, and [Obama is] going to have a big mandate, and he’s going to have a country in deep trouble.” To CAF, USAction, and the other K Street groups waving binders at the new administration, such nagging is more than ideological inclination — it’s a historic duty.
Add to this compulsion the fact that Obama ran an entire campaign premised on change; the very vagueness of the term has made the race to define it for him all the more urgent. Naturally, “change” means “everything” to those Washington liberals who have spent the Bush years in despair. Most progressive groups I spoke with cited health care, a new energy policy, and a drawdown in Iraq as the big three priorities for the new Democratic administration. The diverse literature of transition, however, suggests a wealth of approaches to these priorities and others. “There’s no question that the marketplace of Washington think tanks is much more crowded today than it was in the early 1990s,” says Will Marshall, head of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and author of the original Mandate for Change, the group’s precocious but less effectual 1992 transition offering.
And there aren’t just a lot of plans. There are a lot of pages in each plan. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) is releasing a 40-chapter book this month pulling together essays from top progressive thinkers and leaders advising the president-elect. CAF has already published a 10-section “guide to kitchen table issues,” pushing for such major reforms as universal health care and quality education. USAction’s book on the “Next New Deal” was published this July, and PPI’s serial “Memos to the Next President” will be bound and duly distributed come January. Some incarnations of the genre are entirely pop: Brookings has partnered with ABC News on a set of videographic transition memos. Wired magazine and the New America Foundation have put out a glossy spread of profiles and essays directed toward “President X” from avant-garde scientists and specialists, while In These Times recently made provocative, though improbable, recommendations for positions in the Obama Cabinet. (Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state for secretary of state?)
Then there is the cadre of single-issue advocacy groups who’ve thrown their white papers into the ring — enviros, health-care reformers, Social Security defenders, government transparency zealots. Some are looking for easy, small-bore wins. “There is some low-hanging fruit,” says IPS Director John Cavanagh, who cites reducing defense spending and revising Latin American trade policy as attainable goals of his group’s transition agenda. Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now, a sprawling, CAF-affiliated project, says the network wants, well, health care now — “with a focus on doing it very early in the next administration. Our entire campaign is structured with that purpose in mind.” A tome released by Van Jones, the founder and president of the environmental-justice group Green For All, proposes “elegant solutions for our economic and environmental crises,” emphasizing investment rather than the regulatory fixes that cause gridlock on the Hill. And the National Security Network wants an early statement on climate change or human rights, says executive director Heather Hurlburt, “something that doesn’t necessarily get at the thorniest long-term problems but immediately says, ‘We think there are different approaches to this problem.'”
But the heaviest-hitting transition rubric isn’t a laundry list of policy priorities. It’s a procedural blueprint. Change for America, released in mid-November by the CAP Action Fund, advises the next administration not simply what to say when the phone rings but who should answer it. CAP’s playbook method is heavily informed by concerns about personnel and process — which distinguishes it from some other publications that privilege general policy, with nods to good governance throughout.
Not to mention the fact that one of CAP’s own, its president, John Podesta, is actually running Obama’s transition team. Green describes the volume as “a 600-page, soup-to-nuts, agency-by-agency progressive transition report.” His co-editor, CAP senior fellow Michele Jolin, claims it answers the question “What are the things that the new heads of these agencies are going to need to do on day one, in the first 100 days, the first year, and in the long term?”
No matter how forward-looking the liberal agenda, the idea that incoming presidents need a bible of governing minutiae has a long history on both sides of the aisle, from the playmaking of FDR’s now-mythic first 100 days to the right-wing idea mill that birthed the Reagan revolution.
Of course, the New Deal set the standard for early progressive victories — and Democratic presidents have been looking to imitate it ever since. The earliest attempt to recreate the magic of 1933 was a decidedly low-tech affair. Richard Neustadt, a former staffer of Roosevelt’s White House, prepared a series of typed memoranda for John F. Kennedy prior to Inauguration Day, 1961. Neustadt’s retrograde views on secretaries aside (“You will want to find an appropriate title for her”), he offers a barrage of helpful tips, provocative questions, and shrewd directives to the president-elect. Beware of “promissory notes” to friends and enemies both. Shall the first meetings with congressional leadership be “intimate sessions à la FDR, or ambassadorial encounters, à la Eisenhower?” And if and when the hordes begin to gather at the gates on Pennsylvania Avenue, “you need somebody else to take the heat, pass the word, fend off the importunate, and soothe the disappointed.”
Such gentility somehow escaped the conservative makers of the next authoritative voice on transition. The sprawling, 1,100-page volume titled Mandate for Leadership — conceived of and placed on Ronald Reagan’s desk by the then-adolescent Heritage Foundation in 1980 — was described as “a blueprint for grabbing the government by its frayed New Deal lapels.” Reportedly, Reagan handed a copy to each of his Cabinet officers, and Mandate became a veritable bible for the Gipper’s first term. Conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that “the foundation had a great hour when Ronald Reagan was elected president and found waiting for him three volumes of Heritage material.”
Heritage now trumpets Mandate — updated in 1989 as “a guide for Bushmen” — as “well established in Washington, well accepted by American voters, and well understood everywhere.” It was certainly well accepted and understood by the progressive establishment, which saw the tome as the primary reason for the runaway success (by conservative standards) of Reagan’s early years. Kumar saw the Heritage’s disciplinary model pay dividends for George W. Bush as well: “He didn’t have to talk about the murky outcome of the election. If he hadn’t had a clear agenda, he would have had a vacuum there that could easily have been filled by the critics.” But Mike Lux, an alumnus of the Clinton White House communications team who was recently named the progressive liaison for the Obama transition, emphasizes the comparative discipline of the Reagan moment rather than the specifics of the Heritage proposals as a reason for conservative success. “It wasn’t so much that the Heritage strategy worked [than] that the Reagan transition worked,” he says. “They were more focused; they understood what they were doing going into it.”
By contrast, the Clinton years were lean indeed. Will Marshall, whose Democratic Leadership Council bred Clinton and tried to guide those first 100 days in office, says of that transition: “The best word to describe it begins with ‘cluster.'” In addition to various political embarrassments surrounding early Cabinet nominations, adds Cavanagh, Clinton “walked into a Republican fight” on issues like gays in the military, and by spending political capital on the North American Free Trade Agreement, “divided his base completely and set a lot of his natural allies against him.” By the time a Hillary Clinton-led task force emerged with a plan for health-care reform, the single-payer activists of the moment felt thoroughly alienated, and a fickle Congress abandoned ship. Of course, when the 1994 midterms arrived, Clinton’s momentum — and the Democratic majority — were lost.
Though Clinton went on to have a successful presidency, responsibility for some of the early bobbles can be traced back to the transition moment. For one, a rusty party apparatus wasn’t prepared for change. “We hadn’t had a Democratic transition in 16 years,” says Lux. And Clinton’s Arkansan posse proved, practically and stylistically, ill-equipped to take over Washington. Lux describes a call he got from Clinton aide Mark Gearan just days before inauguration, telling him to head for Little Rock: After flying south with a half-dozen other bewildered D.C. operatives, “we basically learned what our actual job and title would be about a half hour before the announcement,” he says. “That was the way the White House staff was chosen.” Terry McAuliffe, a 1990s chairman of the Democratic National Committee who is still close with both Clintons, says, “If you asked Bill Clinton he would say, of course he’d do things differently.”
Today, of course, the Obama people have studied the Clinton order of operations — and have proceeded to enlist many of those who possess, for better or worse, hard-won hindsight. The conscription of Podesta to manage Obama’s transition was just the first hint that old hands would occupy key spots around the crowded kitchen table. Podesta’s people have been relentless about cataloging best practices on personnel, protocol, and agency operations. (In addition to the CAP Action Fund text, Podesta has penned his own book, complete with a draft inaugural address.) Clearly, the insiders aim to avoid the rookie mistakes that have plagued previous Democratic presidents. Another Clinton White House alum now heavily involved in 2009 planning says of the Clinton transition, “We were very young and very enthusiastic and we got buffeted by events.”
Somewhat ironically, the missteps of every Democratic transition since Neustadt’s era have left today’s progressives with Reaganauts for forebears. Borosage, whose reference copy of Mandate for Leadership anchors his office bookcase, freely admits that his transition strategy borrows from the conservative movement. “It’s a best practice,” he says. “Heritage in these cases was extremely influential.” Green, who also keeps an edition close at hand, calls Mandate the “godfather.” Cavanagh is also hagiographic about Republican brilliance on this front: The conservative-ideas industry is “big, it’s well organized, it’s top-down, it has foot soldiers. … It works well,” he notes almost wistfully. “If you look at the progressive map, it’s about 10,000 organizations, many of whom don’t interact.”
Although that, too, has changed — and the white papers prove it. “Just five years ago the Center for American Progress, the Huffington Post, Air America didn’t exist, and MoveOn was at half its strength,” says Green. “The grass-roots and intellectual energy is far greater on the left now than it was in 2004.” Borosage, in addition to his role at CAF, is a creator and convener of the Tuesday Group, a confederation of principals from large unions, progressive citizen groups, and think tanks, as well as certain Hill staffers. The coalition meets biweekly with the goal of giving the left “priorities and a common language” — which they believe will help an Obama administration. At an October meeting, informal and more direct strategies for transition were tossed about, including advice from individuals working directly with Obama’s team. Numerous individuals in attendance praised this focused, collegial dynamic, which deflates somewhat the presumption that the left is a messy band of believers unable to effect change. The fate of health-care reform in 1993 may have been quite different for Hillary Clinton if such a base had been at the disposal of her husband’s White House.
And if the Tuesday Group recalls anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s infamous Wednesday morning breakfasts between elite members of the conservative establishment, participants are unashamed. “It’s very similar to the Norquist group,” says CAF co-director Roger Hickey after leaving the gathering at the AFL-CIO headquarters. “We’re now much more sophisticated about organizing to have an impact.”
The left has brought this same spirit of rehabilitated pugilism to the present moment. Appropriately, the Roosevelt Institution, a progressive student think tank with its own transition pamphlet, believes that the transition is “about setting the tone of the debate,” says executive director Nathaniel Loewentheil. “There are lots of people who are coming in with centrist ideas and lowered expectations, and I think we have a right to say we expect a government can do all of these things.” As Cavanagh of IPS puts it, “There’s a lot that we can achieve by just getting good ideas to the right people.”
But when it comes to ideas, team Obama hasn’t exactly been rattling the cup. In fact, McAuliffe said in October, “This campaign has gone on for so long, clearly the Obama campaign knows exactly where he wants to take the country. That’s the benefit of having a two-year campaign.” Between The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s own ink-as-ideology biography, and the “300-person foreign-policy campaign bureaucracy” for which he was briefly mocked this summer, it seems that redundancy should be a major concern of well-meaning entities on the left.
Other modern presidencies offer mixed counsel. Peter Wallison explains that “[Reagan] did actually look at and read things that he thought would actually be helpful to him in governing. But I don’t think in general presidents pay very much attention.” Clay Johnson, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget who was tasked with managing one of the more absurd transitions in history — the recount-delayed turnover between Clinton and Bush in 2000 — began his planning in the spring of 1999. He is helping to facilitate this year’s transition as well and says of the various progressive agendas for Obama: “Let’s be candid — a lot of this will be ignored.” Bob Shrum, senior strategist for John Kerry’s 2004 run, says that unless an idea is “the sort that really stands out,” campaigns tend to keep their own counsel. This is especially true of Obama, who has his own political base and made a point of disengaging with much of the current Washington apparatus during his bid. “There aren’t going to be people parachuted in,” says Hurlburt. “The Obama universe is so large that there could be people to say ‘we need you to just go off and think about the transition.'”
Reading further into the dense literature of transition, it becomes clear that the new paper-pushers are largely the old ones. Lawrence Korb, a veteran of the George H.W. Bush Defense Department, has contributed to the IPS and CAP platforms on defense. Michael Waldman, chief White House speechwriter for Clinton’s second term, has worked on an essay for the Democracy offering. Kenneth Duberstein, a Reagan Cabinet official who endorsed Obama for president, has managed the publication of the Brookings transition project. Other Clinton alumni like Laura Tyson, Sandy Berger, Henry Cisneros, and Podesta have penned chapters in the CAP volume. Greg Craig, Clinton’s impeachment lawyer and a key foreign-policy adviser for the Obama campaign, wrote CAP’s State Department offering. It’s not just that Obama learned from the transition mistakes of the Clinton team; the team learned from its own mistakes, and Obama is letting it take the lead in his administration. These fixtures of Democratic government in exile have made a career of finessing policy and advising presidents; though it cuts somewhat against the presumption that Obama will offer true change, their resurrection is good evidence that the left has finally created its own seamless cycle between think tanks and government — a characteristic of the right it has long envied.
But will Obama actually read — let alone implement — the suggestions of the army of wonks on the left? One organizer maintained that his group would magically woo “the progressive part of Obama,” suggesting they could push benchmarks for climate action from 60 percent emissions reductions by 2050 to 80 percent reductions — which would be dandy, were the latter not already Obama’s stated position. Other non-profiteers are more measured in their expectations: “We’re not going to solve the Iraq conundrum with a 2,000-word memo to the president, and we’re not going to try,” says Marshall.
Borosage, for his part, sees the agenda-writers as just as important as the agendas themselves. “There’s a situation where the people you’ve assigned to write chapters are logical secretaries or undersecretaries,” he explains.
To be fair, just about everyone — including the former Clinton official with ties to the current transition — acknowledges that Obama will need eyes to peer around corners, and fresh ideas on demand. The think-tankers can’t really be blamed for clamoring to whisper in his ear. Most groups are hoping for one of two outcomes: getting their people in the door of the executive branch or getting their ideas into the new political bloodstream. But to be more effective, the official encourages interest groups to band together — which, on the new left, is a fait accompli. “Having a lot of different books in the Bible to read from is not necessarily bad,” Kirsch concludes, “if they’re all teaching the same lessons.”
Perhaps the most important truth of this political moment remains the near-tantric cool with which Obama won the election. Consider the reams of newsprint that littered Obama’s path to the White House. The Washington Post wrote, “Mr. Obama will not ride into town determined to reinvent every policy wheel.” The Chicago Tribune opined, “Obama would govern as much more of a pragmatic centrist than many people expect.” Every wonk in town marvels at his famed temperament without thinking that the “new kind of politics” he’s promised could mean that their hard work goes into the shredder.
Hurlburt believes that progressives should expect “more awe and less shock” from their leader. And Obama himself is circumspect about the benefits of the liberal shock doctrine. “I do think the next president’s going to have to come quickly out of the box,” he told a reporter in Boulder, Colorado, in the days before the election. “The first 100 days are going to be important, but it’s probably going to be more like the first 1,000 days that makes a difference.”