The Clinton cabinet

Robert Kuttner

October 29, 1992|By Robert Kuttner

IF Bill Clinton wins, let's hope he wins big, since a clear mandate would give the new president the confidence to chart a coherent course. A narrow victory would play to Mr. Clinton's reported weakness -- a desire to conciliate that sometimes translates to offering something for everyone.

The papers are now full of dope stories on who will get the key posts in a Clinton administration. All of these stories are wrong, by definition. At this stage, nobody knows whom he'll pick -- not even Mr. Clinton. And he will not focus on that question until Nov. 4.

The stories imagining the Clinton cabinet mainly represent office-seekers touting their own candidacies, and the press playing echo-chamber. Instead of guessing who will get what job, we should think hard about how Mr. Clinton chooses.

The big issue facing him and the country is, of course, the economy. Here, it is crucial for Mr. Clinton to appoint people who share a basic outlook, rather than a medley that will create a stalemate.

History offers several instructive precedents. Ronald Reagan, knowing the importance of a coherent script, hired a cast of characters who shared a world view. Although the story line ultimately bombed, supply-side economics got a fair audition and a very long run (it should have closed on the road).

By contrast, George Bush and Jimmy Carter, with lesser mandates, sought to split the difference among various constituencies and philosophies. Under Mr. Bush, supply-side true believers and centrist pragmatists canceled each other out. Economic policy flip-flopped, depending on whose advice the president was taking at a given moment; it added up to mush.

The Carter administration, likewise, seethed with intrigue even before Inauguration Day, from the moment its carry-over campaign staff began feuding with its new transition team. Mr. Carter's emblematic appointments were Cyrus Vance to the State Department, to please the doves, and Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security adviser, for the hawks. His economic team included planners, and free-market people; spenders, and budget-cutters. Eventually, in frustration, Mr. Carter fired the whole cabinet.

Franklin Roosevelt was also famous for encouraging his aides to argue out diverse views. But all shared a basic progressive outlook. And at the end of the day the boss made the policy.

Looking at the key economic posts, Mr. Clinton will have some big decisions to make soon. Should he calm the money markets by appointing deficit-hawks to the posts of treasury secretary and budget director. How about Paul Volcker and Paul Tsongas? Should he name a leading Republican to a top economic job, to signal bipartisanship?

Not on his life. While a president should welcome wide diversity among policy advisers, open philosophical differences among heads of operating agencies is a formula for chaos. Cabinet members don't just tender advice or "send signals" -- they run the government.

Mr. Clinton would be pelted with advice to give treasury to a Wall Street type, or better yet to a Republican one. But if he doesn't want to hold his administration hostage to the money markets, he would be wiser to define his treasury secretary as overall economic policy chief. Better to give the job to a Democrat of broad stature and wide-ranging knowledge of the economy, such as Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

The budget director job, by contrast, should be downgraded. In the late 1970s the Office of Management and Budget emerged '' as a power center, under Bert Lance (Mr. Carter), David Stockman (Mr. Reagan), and Richard Darman (Mr. Bush). Previously, however, it was a technician's post, held by relatively obscure, competent numbers-crunchers who followed orders and offered options.

Mr. Clinton would be wise to return OMB to its former status, and give the job to someone technically competent, but not a power-player in his or her own right. If the post goes to a high-profile person, the pressure will be irresistible to name someone whose appointment signals fiscal austerity. From day one, that would set off an enervating tug of war against the rest of Mr. Clinton's own program. The right choice for OMB is someone you've never heard of.

For the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, there are plenty of outstanding candidates. The important thing is to pick one who shares Mr. Clinton's basic belief that government is not simply an infringement on markets but, in capable hands, can be a force for social betterment.

By all means, include a Republican or two in the administration. Many Republican business leaders now believe that the simple government-bashing of the Reagan-Bush years was bad for business; instead, they want to forge a business-government alliance. But these people properly belong at the Commerce Department, not at the jugular of treasury or OMB. There are also Republican advocates of fairer trade, like Clyde Prestowitz (who recently endorsed Mr. Clinton), who would do well as chief trade negotiator.

To be sure, Mr. Clinton should welcome diverse views. Doubtless he will, for he is unusually knowledgeable and keenly curious about policy options. But Mr. Clinton also needs to seize the reins, define a course and recruit a team that will pull in the same direction. The best economic signal is coherence.

Robert Kuttner writes a column on economic matters.

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