The Battle for Clinton Administration Personnel Begins Now–Not After the Election

I have long noted that with the Senate likely to be nearly evenly divided and the House still in GOP hands, the greatest good a Democratic administration can do will be via the Executive Branch. When Clinton used the notion that she could better shepherd legislation through Congress as a talking point against Sanders during the campaign, I frequently noted that neither of them would be able to do so effectively, and that the greatest difference between them would be in the executive appointments they might make. Similarly, the greatest danger of a Trump presidency lies not in the laws that would pass Congress (assuming a Democratic takeover of the Senate), but rather in executive actions on immigration and foreign policy. And, of course, there’s the Supreme Court.

And the appointments game is already well underway. With Clinton nearly assured of victory on election day, her team is already busy making decisions on appointments to various agencies and positions.

The secretive team tasked with preparing for a possible Hillary Clinton presidency is ramping up big time.

With polls pointing to the likelihood of a Clinton win, her transition team is hiring staff, culling through the resumés of possible Cabinet nominees and reaching out to key Democrats for input, according to people familiar with the process.

As Dave Dayen effectively argues in The New Republic, personnel is policy. And in 2008, Obama Administration personnel–including many of the Rubinite economic persuasion–were already being decided before the ballots were cast on election day. The Wikileaks revelations have also shone light on the hostility that many of Clinton’s closest advisers, especially Jake Sullivan and Center for American Progress head Neera Tanden, have for the agenda at the heart of much progressive activism today–most prominently on Wall Street policy, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and efforts to stop fracking and minimize fossil fuel extraction.

Particularly alarming is the rumor that Tony James, president of the Blackstone Group, might be picked for Treasury. James has argued for a mandatory payroll investments into managed funds that would further move away from the pension system, beyond even the 401K into a federally mandated investment scheme that would give billions in fees to Wall Street management firms.

This situation puts progressive groups and activists in a bind. On the one hand, there is a strong incentive to hold their fire and present a face of solidarity in order to make sure that Donald Trump is defeated and by a large margin. On the other hand, failure to engage in the battle over Clinton Administration personnel would allow the establishment free rein to pick more potentially corporate-friendly appointees, with decisions already set in stone before Donald Trump even concedes.

By and large, in 2008 progressive groups decided not to make a big deal of the rumors surrounding some of Barack Obama’s economic appointees before the election, and ended up getting burned by that decision. They probably shouldn’t make the same mistake this time.

With the Wikileaks releases continuing daily, minor infighting between progressive and establishment groups on the Democratic side won’t be big news, and almost certainly won’t cost votes against Trump. For instance, Elizabeth Warren has been making much noise demanding that President Obama fire the SEC chief, who she feels has been far too lenient in enforcing disclosure rules. Of course, Warren’s demands aren’t really targeted at Obama who has only a few months left in office; rather, they’re targeting at the incoming Clinton team, signaling that the appointment of the SEC head is a big line in the sand for her and that she expects changes. This is the right call.

Labor and progressive organizations need to be drawing their own lines in the sand starting now–not after the election.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.