Kiss and Tell

I’m not sure whether the (ed: now very old–this post has been sitting as a draft for roughly a week) comments by Obama’s deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand are just tone-deaf or downright creepy:

The point I’m making here is that our new president, the Congress and all Americans must come together to solve these problems. This is not a time for the left wing of our Party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-Elect Obama is making.

That sounds like the old president.   The bad one.  Slightly more encouraging is the following paragraph:

As a liberal member of our Party, I hope and expect our new president to address those issues that will benefit the vast majority of Americans first and foremost. That’s his job. Over time, there will be many, many issues that come before him. But first let’s get our economy moving, bring our troops home safely, fix health care, end climate change and restore our place in the world. What a great president Barack Obama will be if he can work with Congress and the American people to make great strides in these very difficult times.

Marc Ambinder thinks this has the effect of framing what is still a very liberal agenda as the centrist counterweight to the left-wing of the party.  See, liberals want crazy things, Obama wants sane things like ending the war, health care, environmental protection… The other reassuring reading of Hildebrand’s comments is that he did a bad job of saying “don’t jump the gun, wait and see how we govern.”  Those caveats provided, what’s the negative reading of Hildebrand’s remarks, and why is it worrying? 

Since the election, there have been a number of disturbing signals about how the new administration might govern, and how political commentators will react to it.  We have John Podesta saying “if you leak, you’re gone,” and there are non-disclosure agreements for the transition team.  Marc Ambinder calls the absence of leaks “kind of amazing.”  Matt Miller, of the Center for American Progress (but thankfully no part of the administration!), called on Obama to act like a celebrity, and sign binding contracts to block aides who would “kiss and tell.”

If an administration is pursuing good policies, then there’s a benefit to it being on message.  The media really is capable of wreaking havoc by focusing on petty internal feuds, or baseless speculation based on what insiders say off the record (you can see some of this already in the essentially baseless speculation about the Blagojevich scandal’s impact on Obama).  Yet on almost any important matter, we are better off with transparency.  

A major reason why I supported Obama, both during the primaries and the general election, was that he seemed to have better instincts about openness in government and the limits of executive power.  Even without major pressure from the public, I have no doubt he will do better on these issues than the Bush administration.  But almost all of the incentives for the President are bad ones here, so even someone with good instincts needs to be held to account by public opinion.  It’s the nature of political thought that despite your best efforts, it’s difficult to hold people you agree with to the same standards.  That bias makes it all the worse when prominent Democrats come out to defend government secrecy.

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