provenance: unknown

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On deciding, and politics and governance

One of the puzzles of the Valerie Plame affair — the puzzle, I think — is why someone in the Bush administration would leak the identity of a CIA agent when it seems unlikely that it would ever have any real political benefit to do so. (As an anonymous official said to the Washington Post, the leaks were “a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish [Plame’s husband Joseph] Wilson’s credibility.”) The rationale Wilson himself suggested for this act — a federal crime — was not just retribution, but the calculation that it would demonstrate just how dangerous it could be to a person and his family to ever cross the administration (as Wilson did when he publicly criticized their investigation of and response to Saddam Hussein’s suspected weapons programs).

If Valerie Plame’s exposure really was calculated, it would be interesting to know to what extent. (I am assuming it really was done by one or more members of the Bush administration, and deliberately.) Was her actual role in the CIA very carefully examined and considered? (It isn’t publicly known; there’s still even a dispute over whether she was an “operative” or an “analyst.”) Did the possible harm to national security enter into the equation (her work was in weapons programs; it was her job, until she was exposed, to uncover threats to the United States)? Was the possible harm to other American agents, who might be tracked down through prior associations with Plame, also part of the consideration? Finally, based on all these, were the possible political costs (to the administration) of Plame’s public exposure a factor? Or, did someone in the administration simply lash out, in retaliation for the political damage Wilson’s public denouncements had caused, and not think about the consequences?

The reason this is interesting is not because there is any defense for putting other people’s lives at risk for your own political gain — there isn’t. I wish to pull apart two distinct but entwined aspects of the Bush White House, and think about why one of them in particular has been so successful.

The first aspect is the semblance of personal pettiness. I do not know enough about it to say much, except that a willingness to punish any offense goes a long way toward keeping everyone in line, especially when combined with unassailable political popularity. Is the Bush administration really “petty”? It depends how you look at it; many White House sympathizers have been arguing that exposing Plame was actually a proper response. (This is ridiculous to me, but I have to concede that in that case it certainly wasn’t petty.) So we’ll set that aside.

The second aspect is the Bush administration’s commitment to its politics. That commitment appears to be near absolute: Politics reigns so completely over policy I can’t think of a single policy the administration has pursued that wasn’t also politically convenient. (And of course there are more than a few that were very convenient politically but that are radically harmful in the long term (so far as I can tell).) The only, feeble counterbalance to the administration’s rapacious desire to promote its political agenda that I can see is that Bush seems to be a genuinely “good guy”; and while this mostly becomes evident watching his personal interactions, he does also express what seems to be a real desire to do good things, here and there. (At least, that’s how I understand, for instance, the White House’s stated interest in sending money and aid to Africa (even if they haven’t exactly followed through completely).) But Bush simply doesn’t seem to understand the consequences of the administration’s policies — I don’t think he comprehends the (admittedly enormous and complex) issues a person really needs to understand in order to see the difference between a good policy and a bad one. (This last is much conjecture, of course, but whatever the reason, policy considerations have effectively been smothered by politics. Esquire had a terrific article on this in January 2003; it is republished here.)

Now the appearance of pettiness is one thing, but the thing about putting politics over policy is this: It actually makes sense. It’s not good for the country, no, but, in a democracy like ours, it’s good for whoever does it. (And, yes, this is a problem.)

The reason is because of the way people make decisions between conflicting viewpoints. If you’ve ever watched the dynamics of a group trying to make a decision — at a team meeting at work, for instance, or even just a bunch of friends picking a place to get dinner — you’ve seen the dynamic in action. The people with the most extreme views tend to get their way, because they care the most about them, and because they tend to strenuously communicate how much they care; and all that tends to make an impression on other people helping to make the decision.

This may seem like a bad thing (depending on your experience, probably), but in principle it’s fine; it’s actually very valuable. People affected by a decision should communicate how important it is to them. Ideally, a group decision-making process should work something like this: It should be made clear who has ultimate responsibility for the decision (possibly the entire group, or, for instance, within a company, a boss). Interested parties should be free to make their case as strongly as they feel appropriate. And the decision-maker or makers should then make the best decision they can, based on an honest evaluation of the information the members of the group give them (which includes how important their views are, how confident they are in them, etc.) and what, given the group’s commonly agreed-upon values or priorities, makes the most sense to the decider. (This works best with a number of decisions over time, because then there is some cost to saying you care a lot about a decision — if you act like every decision is life-or-death, you lose the ability to communicate that you think a certain decision is truly vital.) It’s perfectly simple in principle.

The problems arise, as always, in practice. For instance, decisions often come to be seen as battles won or lost in ongoing power struggles (“Fred always agrees to what Ginger wants because he doesn’t like me as much”; “The Republicans’ victories in 2002 mean the country is shifting red”) and the decisions themselves take on symbolic values — so people care more about them than they care about what’s actually being decided. Decisions go in favor of certain interested parties simply because they’re harder to deal with, not because it’s better for the group. Decision-makers rule seemingly arbitrarily, based on reasons that no one else was aware of and that were never explained until after the decision had been made. And so on. These aren’t flaws with the principle so much as flaws with the execution — failures to make group decisions for the relevant reasons and with complete information — but they are probably more or less inevitable if sufficiently many people (read: more than two) are involved.

The thing is, in a republican democracy there is a flaw in principle (I think). In an election, the voters are the decision-makers; in order to get elected, officials must appeal to the voters. The same rules apply — all other things being equal, there is a real advantage to appealing strenuously for support for extremist views. [All other things aren’t equal, of course — there are other pieces to this puzzle I’ve yet to chew.] But then what happens is someone gets elected. The role is reversed: Now the politician is making all the decisions, not (for the moment) appealing to someone else to decide in his or her favor.

And making good decisions is an entirely other thing from campaigning for a particular viewpoint. One requires careful consideration of all the various, relevant factors; the other punishes moderation and thoughtful regard for opposing views, and rewards extremism and dismissiveness. Good governing is a completely different thing from good politicking.

Which is where the trouble comes in. Good politicking — that is, successful politicking — never lets up: There is always another election, sooner or later. So an elected official faces a conflict between doing what’s right (governmentally) for his constituency and doing what’s right (politically) for him or her.

Now, in principle, this conflict is easy to resolve — wherever they conflict, you put your town’s, city’s, state’s or country’s interests before your own. But it is understandably less easy in practice, given all that’s involved in investing one’s career in politics; high-minded principle is too often a sort of political suicide, and obligations to affiliations and supporters weigh heavily. [This is a subject for a similarly lengthy exploration of its own, at another time.]

And a truly ruthless political operative will radicalize governing completely — the better to use it as another tool to win the next election. Such an operative, it seems, is Karl Rove. (That Esquire piece I mentioned above is very revealing in this regard, too.) The apparent pettiness of the White House aside, its political tactics follow a very real and consistent logic, and their success (for instance, in the mid-term elections in 2002) is unsurprising. The bad governance — the complete policy void — that so enrages so many opponents (and me, as well) is highly effective politics, pure and simple; that it’s bad for governing is incidental but not at all surprising, either. And the Plame leak is just one example of this misplaced priority, preserving political strength at the country’s cost (quibble as everyone may about how effective it was, or how high or low the cost really is in fact).

What else is there to say about it? I don’t know. Whether or not politicians should be elected on character (i.e., whether they care about the health of the nation, and not just their own careers) instead of the radicalized and simplified policies they invent and stuff into sound bites to appeal to voters isn’t exactly obvious — voters need a way to approve or disapprove of policy, too (and like I say, I think it’s right in principle to campaign strongly for policy, and let the public make its own decision). And I think it’s a very real problem. Right now Bush’s opponents are no doubt gratified to see that his policy failures finally seem to be hurting him politically, but that doesn’t mean that Rove was mistaken, from his perspective, to push Bush’s political interests to the fore — just that he miscalculated.

Maybe that’s inevitable — maybe bad policy will always come back and hurt its author. That would be a hopeful thing, and a valuable one for a government’s leaders to believe regardless of whether it’s true. But it seems more likely that there will always be certain tactics that will have immediate political value and only hidden or long-deferred costs to the country, and, worse, that the politicians most likely to win elections are also the ones most likely to take advantage of those tactics.

[Then you would need some external checks on government power. More on that soon (I hope).]

October 2, 2003 2:52 PM


Excellent piece, Matt. You are perhaps more inclined to see the good in Mr Bush (typo corrected was 'goof,' tellingly), but perhaps it doesn't matter in the end whether he's Good or Evil, at least in his intentions, any more than it matters if he has a grasp of ethics or beekeeping or the airspeed velocity of an unladen African swallow.

Bad policy always will, one hopes, come back to bite its author in the ass. The question which no longer seems to be of much importance, though, is 'who is the author'? Who, after the examplary performances in weaseldom of the last four presidents (stepping backwards : plo chops, Iraq 1, and Iran-contra, to name some specifics), can actually claim with a straight face that the man in the driver's seat is in any sense in control of the vehicle?

Yeah, well, I stretched that metaphor too far, but it's late, and I'm hungover, so nevermind.

Words, Roxanne! I'm afraid of words!

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on October 12, 2003 10:59 AM

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