Team of Rivals

TEAM OF RIVALS…. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” about Abraham Lincoln stocking his cabinet with his political enemies to help forge political reconciliation, has been getting more than its share of attention. The President-elect has not only talked about how much he enjoyed the book, but as every political commentator with an audience seems to have emphasized, Obama also seems to be following Lincoln’s example as something of a template.

Matthew Pinsker, who teaches Civil War history at Dickinson College, had a fascinating opinion piece in the LA Times yesterday, responding to Goodwin’s thesis, and noting that Lincoln’s “team of rivals” was actually pretty dysfunctional, and not an especially good idea to begin with.

As Pinsker explained, Lincoln ended up ignoring close allies, while promoting enemies, several of whom created practical and political trouble for the president. Most quit during Lincoln’s first term.

Over the years, it has become easy to forget that hard edge and the once bad times that nearly destroyed a president. Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.

Lincoln was a political genius, but his model for Cabinet-building should stand more as a cautionary tale than as a leadership manual.

Fair enough. But as tempting as it may be to connect Obama’s approach to Lincoln’s, and as much as the transition team probably likes the comparison to American hero/icon for public consumption, I’m not sure if the similarities are especially compelling.

At this point, literally zero cabinet announcements have been officially announced, but we’re pretty sure about two cabinet spots (Daschle at HHS and Holder at Justice), and equally sure about one cabinet-level spot (Orszag at OMB). All three are highly qualified, and none of the three was ever an Obama “rival.”

Now, for Secretary of State, Obama appears to be considering Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson, both of whom challenged Obama for the Democratic nomination. But as Kevin noted today, “[O]ne cabinet spot hardly counts as a team, does it?”

What’s more, a team of rivals probably won’t come together, in part because there’s a limited number of rivals to consider. Biden wasn’t a rival for very long, and he’s the Vice President. Edwards hasn’t quite made a comeback. Clinton or Richardson may get to take the reins at Foggy Bottom, but only one will probably be in the cabinet. Dodd is staying in the Senate, Kucinich is staying in the House, and Gravel is, well, probably wondering around somewhere, but has no shot at a government post.

The team may have a rival or two, but that’s it. The Lincoln comparison just doesn’t hold up well.