Sabatos Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics

UVA Center for Politics January 12th, 2012


Modern Cabinets: No “Team of Rivals”

With Mitt Romney leading in the Republican nomination battle, there has been talk of what kind of roles the other GOP candidates might occupy in a hypothetical Romney administration. Naturally, the first position discussed is vice president, but there has also been talk of Cabinet appointments, and it is certainly possible that some of Romney’s foes would make plausible candidates. However, recent history tells us that incoming presidents do not typically appoint their former rivals for the nomination.

Many incoming presidents have surely reacted skeptically to the idea of bringing in individuals who had so recently opposed them; perhaps they even responded as Barbara Walters did when she heard Herman Cain state that he would hypothetically be open to taking the secretary of defense position.

If we look at presidential Cabinets from 1960 to now, we found only four Cabinet appointments by incoming presidents that came from the intraparty competition. First, in 1968, George Romney (Mitt’s father) ran an abortive campaign for the GOP nomination, and ended up becoming Richard Nixon’s first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Nixon also appointed Massachusetts Gov. John A. Volpe as transportation secretary, but Volpe’s presidential campaign was minor and short (he ran as a favorite son candidate in his home state and lost).

Twenty years later, Jack Kemp became George H.W. Bush’s HUD Secretary after he competed against the senior Bush in the 1988 Republican primary. Of course, the most recent example is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom President Barack Obama appointed after a highly competitive fight for the 2008 Democratic nomination. In fact, President Obama tried to be the first incoming president in recent times to appoint two former foes, but the candidacy of former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson for Secretary of Commerce was withdrawn over “pay-to-play” accusations arising from his gubernatorial tenure. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was also briefly a Democratic candidate for president in 2008, but he never competed in a nominating contest.

So it seems that if we do see one of Romney’s GOP opponents appointed to his Cabinet, they will probably know a lot about housing or be well-versed in foreign affairs.

— Geoffrey Skelley

Ruled by the rich?

During a debate Sunday morning, Mitt Romney recounted some advice his father, ex-Gov. George Romney of Michigan, once gave him:

“Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage. If you find yourself in a position when you can serve, why you ought to have a responsibility to do so if you can make a difference,” Mitt said of his father’s advice.

Read between the lines here and the message is: Only run for office if you’re rich enough that you don’t have to work to make ends meet.

Romney’s comments, combined with a brutal-looking hit piece about Romney’s time at Bain Capital and his own ill-timed comments about how he likes “being able to fire people who provide services to me,” will fuel the campaign the Democrats will run against him if he is indeed the Republican nominee. They will say that he’s the kind of rich, out-of-touch Wall Street-type whose profits came on the backs of regular working folks.

That said, Romney’s conception of public office — in which the well-off soberly offer their enlightened services to the nation — is pretty similar to how many of the Founders viewed public office, at least in the early days of the Republic.

In Empire of Liberty, part of the Oxford History of the United States, authoritative Revolutionary-era historian Gordon Wood notes this prevailing attitude in the late 1780s:

“The rich,” declared Robert R. Livingston in the New York ratifying convention, possessed “a more disinterested emotion” than ordinary people, who tended to be “most occupied by their cares and distresses.” Even Jefferson admitted that only those few “whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue” could “be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” Only a few were liberally educated and cosmopolitan enough to have the breadth of perspective to comprehend all the different interests of the society; and only a few were independent and unbiased enough to adjudicate among these different interests and advance the public rather than a private good.

That said, this conception of who was fit to lead the nation was not uniformly accepted:

Such an elitist conception of the Constitution was bound to arouse opposition in an America that was becoming increasingly egalitarian and filled with ambitious middling people who wanted a say in how they were governed. Indeed, as John Dickinson warned his colleagues in the Philadelphia Convention, “when this plan goes forth, it will be attacked by the popular leaders. Aristocracy will be the watchword: the Shibboleth among its adversaries.”

The successful Jeffersonian rebellion against John Adams’ Federalists — and the Jacksonian rebellion against Adams’ son’s presidency a generation later — shows how anything that even hints at elitism in American governance can be politically fatal. Romney and his advisers best take note.

Kyle Kondik