All the President's Mystery Men (and Women)

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While campaigns trumpet their VP picks, voters get little insight into who might staff a president-to-be's cabinet -- and help set administration policy. Should that change?

Obama and his cabinet at a July 26 meeting. (Reuters)

Paul Ryan comes into his vice presidential nomination with more policy baggage than most. We'll vet him obsessively for the next few weeks, and with good reason. But let's face it, he's still running for the second slot. Think about this: The attention we pay to who might be the next vice president of the United States dwarfs by several orders of magnitude the attention we give to the dozen or so people whose job descriptions actually include making public policy for the country -- the rest of the president's cabinet. Who might Mitt Romney pick to head up the Treasury Department? The Department of Defense? To be attorney general? Who, for that matter, would fill Hillary Clinton's shoes as Obama's second-term secretary of state? Those questions are hugely consequential to the functioning of the American presidency.

Still, voters get little insight into their answers. Who will line up alongside the president at cabinet meetings is a decision that lives only the mind of the president-to-be. Should that change?

In the sleepy summer weeks leading up to Romney's picking of Ryan, I handed that thought experiment to several academic experts in presidencies and elections. It isn't completely unheard of, some pointed out, for a presidential wannabe to hint at the makeup of his future cabinet. In 2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush floated the idea of naming the worldly and broadly popular Colin Powell his secretary of state. "I hope his greatest service might still lie ahead," wink-winked then-candidate Bush. But, more normally, we get things like the empty nod both Barack Obama and John McCain gave in 2008 to Warren Buffett as the sort of bloke they'd love to have as their secretary of the Treasury. The experts' opinions varied but can be boiled down to this: Getting a presidential nominee to signal who'd serve in their cabinet is well-nigh impossible, and it also might be a good idea.

Things work differently in other countries, of course. Nearly every one of my academics began by pointing to the "shadow cabinets" built into other ways of governing. Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, described the full-color display the loyal opposition puts on during Prime Minister's Questions in the United Kingdom. "They're hooting and booing and hollering at his answers," says Jillson. "It helps people decide because they know who is going to be chancellor of the exchequer, secretary [of state for] defence, and all those jobs. But our system isn't set up that way."

Ours, of course, isn't a parliamentary system, but one with a chief executive. He or she is the boss. That brings up the most striking, and potentially fatal, mark against the idea: It lashes a president to decisions made as a result of the impulses of a candidate. "I think it would introduce all kinds of deals and arrangements that wouldn't bode well for the administration," says Gerald Pomper, professor of political science at Rutgers. "It would bind him to things he wouldn't want to do. You don't know what you're going to do with your administration" when you're still on the campaign trail.

It's Presidential Candidate 101 to avoid making agreements your administration is obligated to keep. The counterargument: When the country is in the middle of a war or economic crisis, a responsible nominee is naturally thinking hard about who their defense secretary or treasury secretary is going to be. The nominees are just not telling us.

There are, the academics point out, more pedestrian political risks.

There's the measuring-the-drapes syndrome. In 1976, Ronald Reagan flirted with presumptuousness when he picked Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate before the Republican convention. (He needn't have bothered; he lost the nomination to sitting President Gerald Ford.) Then there's the fact that good vetting of cabinet officials requires enormous time and other resources. Bad vetting gives opposition researchers more to chew on. Either way, cabinet picks named early become irresistible fodder for the ceaseless news cycle. Just imagine the tweets. And, of course, the Senate has final say over the president's cabinet selections. In today's hyper-partisan climate, there's real possibility that a president could be made to look the fool when the picks he's been touting for months don't pan out.

Moreover, naming names during the campaign risks annoying the surrogates, fundraisers, and interests groups whose support a nominee wants and needs. "Appointing a shadow team would be a major distraction," writes David Karol, associate professor of American politics at the University of Maryland at College Park, "and would inevitably disappoint many aspirants who would otherwise work hard to get the nominee elected in hopes of snagging an appointment." Every name that gets floated is a bummer for perhaps dozens of other hopefuls -- and for the people who want to see those hopefuls with plum jobs. "Better to wait until you're elected," writes Karol, "to disappoint most of them!"

Also, staffing up while the race is still on can also cause internal unrest. The classic example of what not to do, says Vanderbilt professor of political science David E. Lewis, is the 1976 Jimmy Carter campaign. Carter was criticized for surrounding himself with Georgians who lacked the background to run the federal government, and his winning campaign fed into a transition that his speechwriter described as "a bloody power struggle as old debts were settled" and victors fought over spoils. "The fact that anyone is doing transition planning or floating names for particular positions," says Lewis, "or carving up the new administration without your input while you're running the campaign, it generates anxiety and uncertainty. There's a sense of unfairness, like, 'We're the ones who are working day-to-day to get the president elected and you're sitting back in some cushy air-conditioned office making recommendations and decisions about who's going to staff the administration?'"

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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