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In all the stories about Republicans and conservatives lauding President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks – even as Democrats go scalp hunting – one surprising fact has escaped partisan and media attention: This may be the most shrewdly organized entering White House since Ronald Reagan’s. To see why, look at the history of the top inside position, chief of staff.
Starting with Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, there developed separate Democratic and Republican ways of organizing the White House. Democrats preferred the FDR model in which cabinet members and senior staff enjoyed more or less direct access to the president. Republicans followed Ike’s example and had a strong chief of staff who controlled the all flow of people and information in and out the Oval Office.
As a result, Democratic administrations gained reputations as unruly free-for-alls, Republican ones as disciplined and efficient. But from Eisenhower’s Sherman Adams to George H.W. Bush’s John Sununu and even George W. Bush’s Andrew Card, most GOP chiefs of staff left their posts to one degree or another under a cloud, invited to leave if not publicly forced out.
The reason was not that they were bad at their jobs but, generally, that they were too good. For an essential part of the chief of staff role was to say no, which meant to make many of the nation’s most powerful figures angry with them rather than with their boss. Let’s put it this way: Having every person of substance in official Washington believing that you personally nixed presidential support for his or her most cherished policy chew toy cannot be a prescription for job security.
One of the few exceptions to this GOP-chiefs-of-staff-as-political-cannon-fodder rule was Ronald Reagan’s James Baker. But in addition to possessing extraordinary political skills, Baker was never in a position to block determined players from getting to the president. In the first Reagan term, each member of the “troika” of Baker, counselor to the president Edwin Meese, and deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver could open the Oval Office’s doors — as, in a pinch, could national-security adviser (and subsequent interior secretary) William Clark and CIA director William Casey. In effect Reagan melded the Roosevelt and Eisenhower White House models creating multiple but not unwieldy avenues of access. One of the major mistakes of his presidency was returning to the Ike model at the start of his second term.
As he prepares for his inauguration, Mr. Trump has establishing his own troika with Reince Priebus in the Baker role and Steve Bannon and genius-pollster Kellyanne Conway as mixes of Meese and Deaver, not in their exact portfolios but in the combined breadth of their responsibilities and the completeness of their Oval Office access.
Trump is off to an outstanding start.