The myth of civil service neutrality, like the myth of an unbiased press, has fostered the growth of an arrogant, self-interested governing class and structure than can and will defend its own interests…
In less than three weeks, the Trump administration has suffered a Niagara of leaks from the White House to the press. Backroom arguments over political influence and policy positions and even the content of confidential telephone calls with foreign leaders have made their way into the hands of reporters. Reporters have gleefully trumpeted the stories, casting the President and his people as incompetent and corrupt buffoons who are being abandoned by all right-thinking people, including their own security and intelligence operatives.
None of this is new. The Reagan and both Bush presidencies suffered from constant leaks, dealing with everything from policy differences to embarrassing gossip. Observers tended to ascribe the leaks to tactical or self-aggrandizing spin on the part of Machiavellian advisers like James Baker and David Gergen, or to policy and cultural differences within the administrations, as with David Stockman and Paul O’Neill. Even liberals, the clear beneficiaries of such leakage, expressed wonder at the lack of loyalty shown to Republican presidents by their own aides.
It is understandable that liberals would be shocked by all this disloyalty, especially because we almost never see it from Democratic administrations. During both the Clinton and Obama presidencies, conservatives and liberals alike were impressed by the message discipline and loyalty shown by presidential aides. Reports of jealousy and backbiting were notably absent in the press, and both administrations spoke as one on policy. Such discipline seemed all the more remarkable in light of the general indiscipline shown by Democrats within the legislative process and in other areas of political action. (Many critics remarked with arch sarcasm—and others with a frightening level of earnestness—that “loyalty” to the Clintons was really their staffs’ fear for their lives if they should be suspected of crossing them. No one expressed such fears in regard to Mr. Obama.)
Part of the reason for this disparity in loyalty has to do with Democrats’ cultural advantage. For example, where Mr. O’Neill would leak to allies in the press in order to burnish his image, making certain that he got positive coverage in the New York Times, no one in either the Clinton or the Obama Administration cared to receive positive press from the Washington Times, let alone Fox News. Nevertheless, there were reasons why Democratic operatives might have wanted to leak for their own advantage. For example, a significant contingent within the Obama Administration wanted to go after the bankers who played such a large role in triggering the Great Recession, yet we heard nothing from these dissenters and learned of their very existence only lately and indirectly.
Analysts have ascribed this difference to the distinction between the ideologically committed and the careerist. Within the “pragmatic” administrations of the elder and younger Bush, one might see greater room for self-interested leaking. But this leaves us with the question of why there was so much leaking during the Reagan administration, and why it has proven so prevalent under Mr. Trump. In the case of Reagan, there was, from the beginning, significant disagreement as to just what (and how much) the Reagan Revolution was to accomplish. This, plus the pragmatists brought into the administration by Vice President Bush, might account for some of the leaking, but hardly all of it.
Then there is the Trump Administration. President Trump has assembled a group of aides who are united in their commitment to a coherent, far-reaching agenda. And yet we are being “treated” to full-throated coverage (whether accurate or “fake”) of every behind-the-scenes whisper, ranging from policy debates to simple gossip. Soon, we will be hearing about what Trump adviser Steve Bannon says when he talks in his sleep.
Why, then, do some presidents suffer from more leaks than others? Perhaps in past administrations it was not merely a matter of contentious or disloyal Republicans tearing each other down, or of united and loyal Democrats working together to build a better world—for the children, of course. Taking into account a certain amount of self-interested behavior as partly responsible, perhaps we need to look beyond the aides themselves as the source of all the leaking. Despite his remarkable capacity for Machiavellian self-promotion, David Gergen was not a serial leaker. Often pointed to as a central fount of leaks in Republican administrations, Mr. Gergen’s leak seemed to have been plugged once he changed his political stripes and joined the Clinton administration. What changed for Mr. Gergen? In addition to working within an ideological atmosphere where dissent receives significantly less toleration, in the Clinton administration he worked within an atmosphere of coordination between the shallow and the deep state. That is, when Democrats have been in control of the Executive Branch in recent decades, their aides and appointees have been working with the permanent political class (our Deep State) rather than against it.
In the case of both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama, whatever compromises may have been dictated by political contingencies—financial capital, after all, votes with its checkbooks overwhelmingly Democratic—political appointees worked with, rather than against, an almost uniformly liberal and Democratic permanent government. Career bureaucrats, and their allies in the press—being overwhelmingly left-of-center—wanted to sow disagreement and spread gossip damaging to the conservative policies and people in Republican administrations. With Democrats in the White House, they were happy to whistle as they worked, ignoring fights and policy differences while implementing liberal policies and protecting liberal pols, even in the face of occasional compromises and policy disappointments.
When damaging leaks failed to spike after Mr. Gergen joined the Clinton crew, it should have become clear to observers that the culture of leaking is made possible by, when it does not absolutely reside within, the upper echelons of the permanent government. The Deep State—that part of the administrative apparatus that sees its job as transcending the particular policy preferences of legislative majorities and the shallow, elective state—does not take kindly to efforts to change its ways. Identifying their own interests with that of the nation as a whole, our permanent governing class sees itself as underpaid and overworked public servants; in their own eyes it is their duty to show selfish Americans that the common good demands progressive policies and ensure that they allocate national energies and resources in the interests of their own notions of fairness and efficiency properly understood.
This means that administrations seeking to undermine the preferred institutional arrangements of what has come to be called the Deep State must be undermined, most obviously through the spread of (often false) stories that make for good copy in the legacy media. When Republicans are president, the sausage making of policy and the often selfish political interests that must be assuaged behind it must see the disinfecting sunlight; when Democrats are in power, we see only the nectar flowing to us from on high.
The myth of civil service neutrality, like the myth of an unbiased press, has fostered the growth of an arrogant, self-interested governing class and structure than can and will defend its own interests. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to recognize the need to set aside such myths and to subject, not just political aides, but administrators themselves, to standards of discipline and loyalty to duly elected officials. The histrionics of the press and many politicians over the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates is proof that we are in danger of losing the most basic understanding of political responsibility that is vital to a free government. Ms. Yates refused to defend the Trump Administration’s temporary order halting entry into this country from seven countries named by the Obama Administration as potential sources of terrorist aliens. In doing so, she cited her disapproval of the policy, which already had been found constitutional by her own department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Quite properly, Mr. Trump fired her.
Philip K. Howard, chairman of Common Good, a non-partisan organization that seeks to restore personal responsibility to government, recently made an interesting case that, by creating a permanent bureaucracy and legalizing collective bargaining by federal employees’ unions (thus conferring upon them Due Process property-right protections of their jobs), Congress has unconstitutionally infringed upon the president’s Article II power as described in its first sentence, “The executive power shall be vested in a President.” With civil service protections so taut yet so labyrinthine as to make it impossible to suspend, let alone fire, even a law-breaking bureaucrat, any member of our permanent government class can almost openly wage war against the president for whom they ostensibly work. In a bureaucracy that is almost uniformly Democratic, such civil service rules are like an in-kind contribution to the Democratic Party and a full employment law for Washington’s journalists during Republican administrations.
One hears occasionally of European nations (Belgium and Iceland come to mind) that have gone for months without a formal government. People joke about how wonderful it must be to live in such a paradise without government. But in reality, these socialist nations have little need for an elected government because so much authority has been vested in their bureaucrats. May the United States never reach the stage where our elected leaders are window dressing upon the edifice of a mass, irresponsible, unelected bureaucracy.
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