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Posted at 5:44 PM ET, 01/14/2011

The triumph of party

By Ezra Klein


The White House is hiring or promoting an awful lot of Clinton people. But it's worth noting that the sum total of Clinton people serving in top slots isn't really changing. Bill Daley is replacing Rahm Emanuel, who was Clinton's senior adviser for policy and strategy. Bruce Reed is replacing Ron Klain, who was Clinton's associate counsel before becoming Al Gore's chief of staff. Gene Sperling is replacing Larry Summers, who was Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration. Jack Lew replaced Peter Orszag, who was special assistant to Clinton for economic policy.

I do think the White House is making a particular effort to gather the Clinton people associated with both the policy and political successes Clinton had -- or at least is perceived to have had, as it'd have been hard to look bad amid an economy so good -- against the Republican Congress. At the same time, you don't want to overread that: It's also clear that the White House simply prizes experience, and if you're looking for executive-branch experience and you're a Democrat, you don't have all that many administrations to choose from. President Carter's team is getting a little long in the tooth.

It's all a reminder, though, that party often matters a lot more than candidates do. Thinking back to the primary, Barack Obama was the guy who was going to transform Washington and chart an alternative to Clintonism and prioritize energy reform and wrest foreign policy away from the class of Democrats who had mucked it all up so badly. His was supposed to be a new, or at least somewhat different, Democratic Party than we'd seen in the '90s.

But then he got to Washington, sat down with the people who seemed to know what they were doing, and found that moving his agenda meant playing by the town's rules, that the people with the most relevant experience to the tasks he needed done were mostly Clinton veterans, that the voters weren't there for energy but were potentially there for health care, and that it made sense for him to put Hillary Clinton herself in the top foreign-policy slot. It's hard to imagine that Hillary Clinton or John Edwards would've done anything all that differently. For all the sound and fury of the primary, the state of the party and of the country told you a lot more about who would be in charge and what they'd be doing than did the rhetoric of the candidates.

That's not meant as a criticism or an endorsement, really. I tend to be sympathetic to that type of institutional pragmatism: The White House isn't a great place to try and wing it. And certainly the specific priorities and tendencies of the president matter for how all this machinery gets used, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. But it's really strange to sit back today and try to recall what the bitter fights between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters were all about.

Photo credit: White House.

By Ezra Klein  | January 14, 2011; 5:44 PM ET
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As a adamant Obama supporter, and a onetime Hillary-hater, I don't hate all things Clinton. In fact I once was a loyal Clinton democrat and I defended him through his very last day in office. However I was embarrassed by his actions and disappointed that Hillary didn't dump him. The Clintons are selfish and definitely undeserving of a second shot in the White House. Once was enough! I have nothing against either of them personally--or their staffs-- but the promise of hope and change emanating from a young black intellectual was too good to be true. And frankly the Clintons are vicious in going after what they want. The primary was war and thank god we won. However I don't, and never have, hated all things Clinton

Posted by: aiko1 | January 14, 2011 6:56 PM | Report abuse

I believe that a lot of the disappointment that progressives feel towards Obama are a result of their own wishful thinking. If you read Audacity of Hope, you saw a slightly left of center guy, but not a revolutionary.

The reliance on the Clinton White House reminds me of Eastern Europe right after the Iron Curtain came down. Ex-communists got re-elected into a lot of their old jobs, simply because these were people with actual experience in running stuff.

Posted by: ciocia1 | January 14, 2011 7:25 PM | Report abuse

Isn't assuaging liberal guilt by having a black man in the White House worthy of a bitter fight?

Posted by: cdosquared5 | January 14, 2011 7:42 PM | Report abuse


Why shouldn't Presidential Appointments be all about Party?

That is why we have the damned things.

The President must appoint a plethora of people to run the agencies, departments, councils, and other governmental entities that pave our streets and protect our shores.

Without a Party to provide the references the Pres would be totally snowed under by office seekers, and occasionally a Charles Giteau might take particular exception to his failures and take it out on a President.

If you can't figure out what a particular party stands for, and therefor what kind of appointees it will entertain, DON'T VOTE!!

I expect a Reagan or a Bush to fill Government with incompetents, because they don't want competence in Government. I expect a Clinton or an Obama to find and enlist talented and competent men and women and to inspire them to seek the good of the Commonweal over the local and temporary benefecence to the party.

In my 43 years of voting I have never been disappointed in my evaluation of the kinds of men the republicans like to hire, or the quality of the men and women the democrats propose.

After all, why would you expect a party that believes that there is no such thing as a conflict of interest, because a Government Man ought to be out there looking out for his own, and believes that good government is impossible to look for good men interested in the republic to appoint to run it?

Posted by: ceflynline | January 14, 2011 8:20 PM | Report abuse

"But it's really strange to sit back today and try to recall what the bitter fights between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters were all about."

well, it isnt strange for me.
the mendacity of moral leadership under president clinton, and the defense of his lying, by a first far as i am concerned, has brought us to exactly where we find ourselves today.
i did not want to see the clintons in the white house again.
to me, there is an enormous difference between the character of the clintons, and the character of barack and michele obama.
and character is at the heart and soul of how someone conducts themselves in office, and governs.
so for me, i know why i worked so hard for president obama, and i am so glad that i did.
and i will certainly do it all over again.

Posted by: jkaren | January 14, 2011 9:46 PM | Report abuse

--*I tend to be sympathetic to that type of institutional pragmatism*--

Klein never met a lack of principle that he didn't pucker up for.

Posted by: msoja | January 14, 2011 10:52 PM | Report abuse

For some one who is fond of Indian and British Parliamentary system; American System is so strange where Political Parties matter so less. I have grown up with Communist Party of India (Marxist) - CPM - where naturally party Secretary Post is more important than the coveted Chief Minister-ship of Bengal.

When next week you have a visitor to White House for State Dinner - President Hu - ask him which post matters him most.

So that is the state of affairs in rest of the world and rest of democracies of the world (hey, Sarah, there are countries which do value / practice your First Amendment without being a silly victim of your Second Amendment); Party matters lot. Of course if you go European, I know an American would never dare to go in that direction, it is even more important when your Party gets votes and you simply happen to squeeze in based on percentage of the vote party gets.

So, may be that is American Exceptionalism - when third or even fourth grade politician bothers to win RNC.

It is all about Money in America. Party Chairs are nothing but ATM and that is all that matters. Well, when you have Citizens United from Roberts Court, everything else is immaterial.

Given this, for Ezra to state that Dem Party is relevant here; is blasphemy. Go and try to tell Harry Reid. Why not even try his shoes for a day?

There is no Democratic Party, especially in Senate. Otherwise all that non-sense of Health Care would not have happened and all that self-flagellation (which can be envy of followers of Imam Hussain too) would not be there.

Truth is, we Americans do not know what is a Political Party. We are all suckers of Presidency. Otherwise Romesh Ponnuru wisely would not have written why the hell it has to be Obama who has to take the lead in solving our core problems.

All these people in WH - it is all right that they all are smart, experienced and quite capable; but it matters less for Americans who Obama appoints. In the end we Americans are used to reach feet of our savior - President. Then it does not matter whether that one is Philosopher President Woodrow Willson or Theodor Roosevelt or Barack Obama or an incompetent one George Bush II or even disgraced Richard Nixon.

For Americans, Politics means nothing more than whether the President sneezed or not.

What the h*ll we know about Political Party and working for generations to achieve emancipation of people via that vehicle?

Posted by: umesh409 | January 15, 2011 1:16 AM | Report abuse

For me, by 2008, the Clinton's and their sycophants had worn out their welcome. They were petty, with a sense of entitlement, as though the nomination belonged to them without having to prove Hillary deserved it. It was all about them, and I thought she would say or do anything she could to win, no matter how badly it hurt the party. But since the convention, I have been astounded at their ability to be team players. Frankly, humility suits them. I would have unhappily supported Hillary had she won the nomination in 2008, just to end the Republican madness. Now, I hope she runs in 2016, and I would gladly support her.

Posted by: jaypem | January 15, 2011 8:57 AM | Report abuse

Ugh. Why are you such an apologist?

Chances are neither Clinton or Edwards would have stayed so far away from the healthcare fight, or let it hang in limbo for so long. Would they have made the same backroom deals beforehand? Would they have caved so completely on tax cuts in the stimulus?

Would Edwards have slapped the UAW so hard while saving GM? Would he have caved on the Employee Free Choice Act?

Would either have continued the wars, kept Gitmo and renditions going strong?

Would either have caved so completely on the Bush tax cuts - without even letting them expire and creating their own?

Would Edwards or Clinton have cowed to Republicans and corporate interest at every step under the guise of giving us a 'seat at the table' with corporate interests?

No. Regardless of how many so-called Clinton people there, and whether you think Hillary is a corporatist or not, Obama is either the weakest president ever - at best, or a complete corporate shill.

Posted by: chris_owens | January 15, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Aren't counterfactuals wonderful? You can never be proven wrong.

Posted by: Virginia7 | January 15, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I'm sure Barack Obama's ever-more devout faith in Rubinism has nothing at all to do with his selections.

Your point is probably valid on national security, but on economics, Edwards, for all his flaws, was surrounded with labor liberals. His COS probably would've been Bonior. His Treasury Secretary probably would've been Leo Hindrey.

Pols partially create their context. Before he got caught with his pants down, Edwards was attempting to create a situation where he wouldn't be beholden to or reliant on the Wall Street wing of the party.

Posted by: davidmizner | January 15, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Chris Owens. I am not sure about Edwards but Hillary would have fought harder instead of caving giving up bargaining chips before negotiations start. Obama did that with the public option. He also undercut that attempt at a bipartisan energy bill by caving on offshore drilling without talking to the Senators who were negotiating in good faith. I am no fan of Lindsay Graham but he had every right to be furious about this.

As for appointing Clintonites, Clinton balanced the budget which produced a healthy surplus and saw record numbers of people moving out of poverty. His rising tide really did lift all boats.

Posted by: BernieO | January 16, 2011 8:13 AM | Report abuse

"... try to recall what the bitter fights between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters were all about."

Symbolically they were about racism and sexism. Each candidate had some of the hot-button issue for the other. Obama's sexism was less reviled than Clinton's racism because his actions were broadly accepted as 'manly' or 'displaying leadership', whereas Clinton was 'elitist' or 'entitled'.

In that sense Obama's primary victory was a re-establishment of the long-standing principle that sexism is more acceptable than racism in America. Black men got the vote before women too.

Posted by: Traipser | January 16, 2011 11:37 AM | Report abuse

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