Shadow Cabinets

Bruce Bartlett has made a proposal that has excited a few people in the blogosphere.

I have long believed that presidential challengers would help themselves by announcing at least some of their top appointments before the election. After all, we already know the incumbent’s appointees. I think it would help many voters make up their minds and swing a few if they had a better idea of how a candidate’s actions would match his words.

In Europe, where parliamentary systems predominate, this sort of thing is taken for granted. Opposition parties always have “shadow cabinets,” where designated people target particular departments for special attention. They are assumed to be given those portfolios should their party gain a majority, and often are.

Not only does this give voters much greater knowledge of what to expect should the opposition gain control, it gives valuable experience and training to those in line to become ministers in a new government. And shadow cabinets make it easier to create coalitions and help assuage the fears of those wary of changing horses in the middle of a stream.

He then goes on to list some possible Kerry cabinet appointments, some obvious, some intriguing, and a couple rather bizarre.

Bartlett stole the idea from Dan Drezner, who has had the idea in the back of his head for a while but, distracted by Salma Hayek, hadn’t gotten around to writing it down yet.

I can see downsides to this strategy — in particular, such an announcement increases the number of official mouthpieces — which increases the likelihood of one of them committing a gaffe/revealing a personal scandal that saps time and energy from Kerry.

However, such a gambit could make a transition much easier, in that it provides a public vetting for key cabinet officials, and might reverse a disturbing trend of lengthier and lengthier confirmation ordeals.

Matt Yglesias thinks it would generate a lot of positive press coverage, especially if the announcements were made piecemeal, but sees some risks, as well.

There are, however, two downsides besides the ones Dan mentions. The first is simply that the vetting and decision-making process would distract key campaign staff at a moment when they have the non-trivial task of running a presidential campaign. other is that presumably anyone you would appoint would be expected to participate in the campaign, complete with harsh denunciations of the other guys, which could make the confirmation process much harder down the road.

Jacob Levy explains quite well, I think, why it would be a bad idea in practice, at least from the vantagepoint of the presidential nominee. His analysis is quite lengthy, but I’ll boil it down to the PowerPoint version:

1) Naming a cabinet inevitably involves lots of disappointment among one’s allies, supporters, and subordinates.

2) The first worry is about the disadvantages of dealing with one’s supporters and base after having gotten too specific.

3) Every shadow-cabinet nominee is a scandal in the making.

The extended version is well worth reading.

I would note, too, that Bartlett’s own argument contains the seeds of its demise: “[T]his give[s] voters much greater knowledge of what to expect should the opposition gain control.” Opposition candidates spend the whole campaign complaining about the incumbent and extolling how much more wonderful things would be if only they were elected: Better jobs, cleaner air, nicer Frenchmen, fewer terrorists, and a pony for every child. They spend months and months dodging reporters’ questions and repeating their talking points.

Russert: You say you are in favor of a stronger national defense but six years ago you said you wanted to shut down the Defense Department to buy ponies for the homeless. [Rolls clip.] How do you reconcile these positions?

Kerry: Listen, you don’t have to tell me about defense. Did I mention that I was in Vietnam? And that I’m in favor of jobs? Good jobs?

What makes Bartlett think candidates actually want voters to have more knowledge? Every stand the candidate takes necessarily alienates someone.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. L-Shuffle says:

    Clever Russert/Kerry quip. Sounds more like the Rove-programmed Elites. Don’t know if you’ve heard but they moved from “flip-flop” to “outside the mainstream.” Neither is true, of course, especially now that Edwards is on the ticket; or it’s no more true of Kerry-Edwards than Bush-Cheney. But Rove and his propagandists know the Right is packed with people of little conviction who’d toss aside their beliefs to defend Bush, even if all they have is meaningless buzzwords.

    Oh, for the day when the Republican Party meant something to the average American. The day when it wasn’t hellbent on keeping the Elites in power on the backs of the middle-class.