Friday, April 24, 2015

The Clinton Foundation & the Institutionalized ex-Presidency?

Newspaper front-pages have featured the doings of the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former President and a current candidate for President. The reports (see here and here) raise important questions about whether foreign entities were purchasing access and influence by giving donations to the foundation and paying huge speaking fees to President Clinton. In at least one case, the donors had interests which the Secretary of State (that is now presidential candidate Hillary Clinton) had oversight.

The first question is whether or not there is a scandal here? I don't really know. This kind of thing is tough to prove and frankly murky. Having gone through the 1990s as a Clinton-hater, I've come around. I am relatively forgiving of complex rich guy stuff. Really rich people are often involved in complex ambiguous stuff - unless they are pretty directly killing and hurting people I am pretty forgiving. Further, I DO NOT believe that the Clintons would blithely toss away U.S. national security. I do think the Clintons could be a bit smarter and maybe less avaricious about their cashing in on the presidency which brings up...

The second question is whether or not there is going to be political fall-out. For that, see my thoughts on Hillary's email imbroglio and multiply. Here's a key excerpt:

...having spent much of the 1990s fighting with special prosecutors over her documents - fueling suspicions that she was hiding something - she goes ahead and recreates that scenario by building her own private email system with which to do the State Department’s business - refueling those suspicions....
This email issue (and we are talking about the Clintons, so who knows what other strange stuff will come up) just reminds me people of silliness of the 1990s. One can easily imagine these uninformed yet critical voters, thinking, “Ugh, these people again? Aren’t we done with their craziness yet? Why are they rebooting that franchise?"
But the third question is the one I really want to talk about, which is the institutionalization of the ex-presidency. Clinton, as a young president has already been out of office for 15 years and could easily be on the national scene for another 15 or more (he's not quite 70 and shows no signs of slowing down.) He can raise a LOT of money in that time (he already has.) Besides his wife, his daughter is now involved. So we could have a foundation with a billion dollar endowment and deep political connections. In effect a family influence business that will never go away. This is new.

One component of studying the vice presidency was the institutional changes to the office. First, the VP needed to acquire the institutional tools (staff and access) to effectively advise the president. But, probably under Gore, this expanded to not merely the vice president as a key advisor but the Office of the the Vice President and player in the broader policy process.

I'm seeing the same sort of the with the ex-presidency. The the terrific fun book The Presidents Club, we see how former and current occupants of the Oval Office work together. Hoover and Truman became friends and Hoover took on some critical tasks (such as food relief after World War II or running the Hoover Commission on reforming government) to help out Truman. Certainly, ex-presidents never wanted for opportunities to share their views with the public or those in power. Nixon was particularly adept at clawing his way back into the public eye.

In the federally mandated Presidential Libraries, ex-Presidents have acquired a modest institutional base. The Kennedy Library has been particularly notable in keeping the memory of Camelot alive. A few presidents have established institutes to carry on their worldview, most notably the Hoover Institute at Stanford and the Carter Center in Atlanta.

But Clinton has built a far greater institutional base and, in placing his daughter at the head, has established a fiefdom. Will George W. Bush (the same age as Clinton) or Barak Obama (who will in his mid-50s when he leaves office) follow suit? They may not have the fund-raising prower of Clinton - but they won't be slouches.

These institutions will be able to fund research, award scholarships, pursue policy initiatives and a host of other things that will both burnish the reputations of their founders and pursue the founders' agendas far into the future.

And of course, with the institutionalized ex-presidency, can an institutionalized ex-vice presidency be far behind? The high-profile post-VP roles of Gore and Cheney suggest not...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Can Obama Break the 2nd Term Scandal Curse?

From Eisenhower on, every two-term president has had a White House scandal in the 2nd term. Not a policy failure, but a weird personnel/legal issue boil up out of the White House itself.

Eisenhower's chief of staff, Sherman Adams resigned in 1958 after it was discovered that he had taken gifts from and made calls to the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission about Boston textile manufacturer Bernard Goldfine.

Nixon of course had Watergate. Reagan had Iran-Contra. Clinton had the Lewinsky imbroglio and George W. Bush had the Scooter Libby crisis. All of these scandals involved White House personnel acting badly in ways that touched on the president himself while in office.

White House scandals, like, Tolstoy's unhappy families, are unique. The Eisenhower scandal was about money, while Nixon was about power. Clinton's scandal was more "ahem" personal - the oldest foible in the book. Reagan's scandal was about conducting an alternate foreign policy. The Bush 43 contretemps (it seems to me at least) had a whiff of revenge - the sense that someone should pay somehow for getting the U.S. into the Iraq War. It is tough to see a common pattern. Sometimes staffers went a bit too far interpreting the president's instructions (that's a charitable understanding of Watergate and Iran-Contra.) In other cases, specific individuals just, well, got up to stuff they shouldn't have.

So no pattern suggests itself with these scandals. No generalizations present themselves, just that after about six years something is going to come up/go wrong.

So far, Obama has not had such a scandal and the clock is ticking. Of course breaking this pattern, just as Reagan broke the 20 year curse (every president elected in an 0 year had died in office starting with William Henry Harrison in 1841 and extending to JFK in 1963) would be a great thing.

I know partisans on the other side will insist that Obama has escaped scandal due to media bias or no one looking hard enough. But, while the Obama White House is undoubtedly up to stuff (politics is a rough business after all) when a real White House scandal comes stuff really will stick.

Of course, maybe something will boil up. But Obama has had pretty strong chiefs of staff in Rahm Emmanuel and Denis McDonough. While Obama has been criticized for surrounding himself with loyalists and cosseting himself in a tight inner circle - one advantage of this is discipline. Unfortunately there is little suggest that this discipline has resulted in good policy.

Another lesson worth noting.

Monday, March 16, 2015

VP Imagery

So I'm trying to update the site, move things around and (within my limited capabilities) make it pretty. The new image at the top is the VP's ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Building next door to the White House. The picture is from the George W. Bush White House, when the office was being renovated (seems appropriate for this blog.)

When done up, the office is gorgeous, as this pic from Washingtonian Magazine shows.

But, as readers of this blog surely know, this beautiful office is rarely used because the VP spends his time in the West Wing - where the action is!

Speaking of great VP images, I have recently come upon Veeptopus, drawn by the intrepid Jonathan Crow. I could tell you about it, but a picture says a thousand words. So here:

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Presentation Slides - The Whole Equation: The Vice President as Advisor

Back in November I gave a presentation based on my dissertation at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland (where I earned my PhD.)

My dissertation (see the slides here) looked at how and why the vice presidency has become influential. Ultimately, the answer is that the U.S. has elected outsider presidents who had little experience with Washington DC or international affairs. These outsiders (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43, and now Obama) all found the advice of their insider vice presidents useful.

As happens so often at the end of a writing project, rather than reaching a conclusion one is left with a question - the question one really wants to write about. That's where I am. What is this advice, this magical insider knowledge that the insider vice president can provide to the outsider president.

This presentation is my first stab at that question.

 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hillary & Hubris: A Tragedy in Email

HRC's iconic Twitter Image
In Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia Clytemnestra (with her lover Aegisthus) plots to murder her husband Agamemnon when he returns home from the Trojan War. When the Great King returns homes he finds a red carpet spread before him. But only the gods are permitted to walk on crimson. Yet, the Great King, returning from a historic victory, could not allow his feet to touch mundane earth, that would be a dishonor. Agamemnon frets about this, fearing the gods will strike him down for his affront. Clytemnestra goads her husband into walking on the crimson tapestries. And the thing about Agamemnon - his hubris, his fatal flaw - is that granted a choice between surrendering honor or claiming too much, he will always choose the excess of honor. (This is the conflict that sparks the Illiad!) Of course, Clytemnestra was plotting to entangle him in this carpet and murder him.

This incident echoes down to the present day. All of us have our fatal flaws. In the Odyssey Homer gave that sage counsel of steering towards the less evil. But knowing what is our particular tendency to greater evil is tough to discern. We steer because of a lifetime of habit, of character.

I thought this applied to Dick Cheney and his penchant for secrecy. There are of course virtues to secrecy. It is not always wrong to be secretive, especially in matters of national security. But there are also times when secrecy is exactly the wrong choice. In the wake of the terrible hunting accident, when the vice president shot his friend, Cheney’s instinct was not to discuss it with the public. But there was no way in which this could have failed to be a national story. Cheney’s reticence only fueled the fire. And it contributed, was perhaps the nail in the coffin, to his once outsized role in the administration.

Now we see, with the Hillary imbroglio that she too shares this particular hubris. In a profound way it undermines her ambitions. Her primary virtue as a candidate is experience. She has been there and done that. Yet, having spent much of the 1990s fighting with special prosecutors over her documents - fueling suspicions that she was hiding something - she goes ahead and recreates that scenario by building her own private email system with which to do the State Department’s business - refueling those suspicions.

A confession: in the late 1990s I was a Clinton-hater. I was running with a neo-con crowd and as a junior member of the conspiracy thought Iraq was a good idea. I’ve learned things since, but I can’t feel all that guilty since my policy influence was exactly nil (I can feel humbled perhaps, but not guilty). 

But, back to the Clintons.

My research on the vice presidency, in which I studied politicians and their doings, left me with a fair amount of respect for them and the tough, tough decisions they have to make. Also, the Clinton administration had its achievements. One could argue he was a great Republican president, giving us NAFTA, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. He got a good hand as president, but he also played it well.

So Hillary has been running for president since 2000, arguably earlier. She has a lot of assets as a candidate. I take experience in presidential candidates seriously and she has it in spades. We like to talk about people having good instincts on policy, but instincts only take you so far. The Presidency is a job like no other in the world. Hanging around the White House and being close to the President counts as experience. The Executive Office of the President is an extensive bureaucracy in its own right, with thousands of employees and agencies. Just figuring out where the White House stands on an issue - before getting to the inter-agency process - is a big deal. The various constituencies within the White House on an issue can easily fill a conference room. Figuring out how to make this institution, which really is the president’s steering mechanism for the ship of state, work for you is not a small problem. Presidents (including Bill Clinton) have wrestled with this problem in their early years. Hillary spent eight years in the White House watching the president closely. She’ll have a pretty good idea of how to get things done.

Presidents who want to accomplish anything significant have to work with congress. The gap between state legislatures and Capitol Hill is significant. The game is the same, but the arena gets bigger and the other players are much better. Consider, Congress has 535 members. State legislatures usually have less than 200. Assume a president or a governor has formidable powers of persuasion and, on any given issue, can usually persuade about a dozen recalcitrant members to shift their votes. In Congress that represents 2.5% of the total. In a typical state legislature (say my home state of Maryland) that would represent almost 7% of the total. A governor has a lot more options. In the past few decades we’ve been electing governors to the presidency and most have struggled with congressional relations.

Hillary spent eight years in the Senate and was, by most accounts, respected and well-liked in the Senate. She will not be flummoxed by the institutional calendar and prerogatives.

Finally, her time as Secretary of State was invaluable experience. Outsiders vastly underestimate the importance of understanding the mechanisms of foreign policy. It is fine to argue the U.S. should pursue a strategy of aligning with state X or pressuring state Y. The actually ways in which these things are done are more mysterious. There is no “pressure adversary” button on the desk in the West Wing.

Hillary, in a way no candidate since, George H.W. Bush, brings experience to the table. We wanted “no-drama” Obama but, for various reasons, didn’t exactly get that (not all of these reasons were his fault of course.) But Hillary, well, when she get up to the plate she’ll know how to hit a big-league fastball.

So all of that being said, Hillary’s email “issue” fundamentally raises questions about whether she’s learned anything!

Let’s be charitable.  At her big press conference, her answer was that simply she wanted to carry one device for all her emails (this response has it’s own problems - namely a certain level of arrogance). Let’s assume that Hillary is not conspiring to keep information from the public and that she honestly thought conducting official business over a jury-rigged personal network based on a server in her house was the least bad solution to these problems. 

Anyway, the federal archiving regulations were ambiguous in 2009 when she took office. State’s IT is pretty rickety and believed to be insecure. So, this made sense at the time. (Could she have changed in 2011 when the White House issued a new policy - well, yeah - but let’s say it wasn’t her top priority.)

Let’s not question motivations. I DON’T think there is anything to Benghazi as a scandal. They may have bobbled the ball, but it was a tough play. The Clinton Foundation is up to stuff, undoubtedly, but I sort of assume that they have some shady donors. Lots of prestigious universities and foundations take money from checkered sources seeking to burnish their reputation.

But the fact that she chose this solution shows very poor judgment in two critical areas.

First, Hillary’s email problem is a counter-intelligence nightmare. My buddy BJ Tucker, a brilliant guy all-round but with real expertise on CI, wrote to me:
CI personnel, if they are involved, would look to have the email servers undergo a forensic examination to look for intrusions, anomalies, etc. I suspect that would find a few because the State Department itself came under several cyber attacks – some of which are ongoing. Data was exfiltrated from State and its possible that an email floating in the archive would have her personal address on it. Once a foreign intelligence service, or a freelance hacker, had that they could use the email headers to track it down. I’m betting that how Guccifer found this email address in the first place. If a few reporters can figure this out, then we have to suspect the likelihood that a nation state did as well. This leads into the content of the emails. In the classified world we have a problem with aggregation. Aggregation occurs when someone marries seemingly disparate unclassified information into one document and inadvertently creating something that is classified. Happens quite frequently, but its become more of a problem in the cyber age. It’s possible that some of the emails contained sensitive information, and someone with access to the archive could start putting things together. Hopefully anything that has been pilfered – if anything was – is now outdated. Another thing to consider is that State has access to several different classified systems with email capabilities for program compartmentalization. Again, it’s not uncommon for users to get confused and share classified information on the wrong system, or worse put it on an unclassified system. This is something else that would be looked at. 
So first, it was just bad security. Did no one tell her this?

But the bigger issue is how someone with her savvy and experience could make such a mistake.

Hillary spent the better part of a decade going back and forth with independent prosecutors over documents and tangling with “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” So knowing that there is this vast conspiracy on the hunt for her mis-doings she developed a email system practically designed to make them apoplectic with outrage and suspicion.

Well, haters gonna hate. Maybe Hillary, knowing how many were salivating to impugn her, was actually baiting them. This would rally her supporters closer and - by focusing on this on the campaign trial - save her from actually having to talk about issues. Understand, once you start talking policy some people will be happy, but some will not. If you can be ambiguous about your policy and let people see in you what they want, you are in a great position on the campaign trail.

If it’s a wonderful strategy. But I’m not sure it will work. The whole point of an experienced president, a steady hand on the wheel, is to not have endless pointless mini-crises, that devour the President's energy and get in the way of actual work. Richard Neustadt called them “piglets” as opposed to the massive policy failure of the Bay of Pigs. If Hillary, with her vast experience and time in office can’t avoid “stepping in it” on this relatively minor issue, do we really want four years of this?


Roughly 47% of the electorate will go for Hillary no matter what and 47% to the other candidate. The election will come down to a relatively small number of people in key swing states. They are not wise Solons, recognizing their critical role as the ultimate decides of our great democracy. They are the least informed voters (welcome to democracy.) They will vote based on general impressions and this email issue reinforces the most negative impressions of Hillary. This email issue (and we are talking about the Clintons, so who knows what other strange stuff will come up) just reminds me people of silliness of the 1990s. One can easily imagine these uninformed yet critical voters, thinking, “Ugh, these people again? Aren’t we done with their craziness yet? Why are they rebooting that franchise?"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dissertation Defended, Slides Posted - From Throttlebottom to Angler: The Evolving National Security Role of the Vice President

My long journey to guild membership is complete, I have defended my dissertation on the national security role of the vice president. It took 110,000 words in 370 pages, but it is done (except for some obligatory mop up.)

Does that mean I'm done with the vice president? Not yet, not quite. There are still things to say. But first, to whet your appetite for the inevitable book - here are my defense slides!



Hope the picture of John C. Calhoun on slide 9 didn't give you nightmares!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Comey v. Cheney: In a Different Light

(OK, last of my overdue cross-posts from TerrorWonk. Sorry, but this is actually one of the best blog level analyses I've done.)

James Comey, the former Deputy Attorney General who famously stood up to the administration's warrantless wire-tapping policies is back in the news because he is about to be appointed Director of the FBI.  His back-story is also relevant as US domestic intelligence collection policies are in the news.

A quick re-cap, when Jack Goldsmith took over the Office of Legal Counsel at DOJ he tossed out the previous opinion that authorized the administration's domestic intelligence collection.  He persuaded Comey that the opinion authored by his predecessor and used as legal support for the adminstration's domestic intelligence collection policies was not legally sound.  One aspect of the program was that it had to be re-authorized by the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Director of Central Intelligence every 45 days.  Comey, acting in Ashcroft's stead during the Attorney General's hospitalization, refused to re-authorize the program.  This led to the infamous hospital scene in which White House chief of staff Andrew Card and White House Counsel Alfredo Gonzales went to Ashcroft's hospital room to get him to sign and had a confrontation with Comey.  Comey took the issue to the President, warning him that appointees at the Department of Justice would resign en masse if the program were continued.  The President, who reportedly did not know the extent of DOJ's dissatisfaction with the situation, altered the program.

This story is generally taken as yet another case of Cheney's nefarious influence.  Cheney's support of the intelligence gathering policy is not in dispute and apparently there was little love lost between Cheney and Comey.  But was Cheney really in the driver's seat?  I think there is another way to view the incident - not as a matter the facts, but rather the interpretation.

First, the episode occurred in 2004.  Bush's priority would have been on his re-election campaign.  He told his vice president to keep things off of his personal agenda if it all possible.

Second, the program had been re-authorized 20 times without incident.  From Cheney's perspective the question had to be, in effect, "What now?"

Bush called the ailing Ashcroft at his hospital to press him to sign and he agreed to do so.  When Bush's people arrived though Comey was there digging his heels in.  It could be argued that Cheney might have served the President better by alerting him to these kinds of difficulties so that the administration could address the problems before they became a crisis.  But by most accounts, Bush was not passively drawn into the extensive surveillance programs - he thought they were a good idea and was a proponent of them.  So his staff was acting as his bludgeon - pushing through his preferences.

So instead of Darth Cheney, architect of a surveillance program dimly understood by his callow President - we see VP Cheney doing what VPs have done since they were given a role: help the President do whatever it is the President wants to do.

VPs do sometimes provide the "wait a minute" moments - telling Presidents a difficult truth that no one else can articulate.  Maybe it would have been wise for Cheney to play that role (as Ford's chief of staff he sought to make sure Ford heard a range of views on key issues and ensure there was an orderly policy process.)  And maybe he did that on some issues.  But the President specifically tasked Cheney with ensuring there were no more attacks against the US, and Cheney took that mission to heart.

This is an alternate take, but it is tough to know what the real truth was.  Still as I keep thinking along these lines, I remember an old SNL skit: