Plum Jobs

Where I live, thoughts are beginning to turn the question of what the next administration might mean in terms of employment and upward mobility. Not for the country, naturally; but for the demographic we care about: the Beltway contingent of lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants. The incoming administration will hire well over 8,000 of them. Who are they going to be or rather, what are our chances?

The calculus is powerfully shaped by the style of presidential government that the present administration has institutionalized to great effect. Once upon a time, the president had to persuade, and he had to bargain with Congress. President Obama does not attempt to persuade anyone of anything, and his relations with Congress are notoriously lousy. He just does stuff. There is real energy in the executive branch (though perhaps not of the kind Hamilton envisioned), and it comes directly from the White House and its various tsars and consiglieri. For agency officials, this requires a high tolerance for political direction (ask the titular FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler). There is a low premium on “expertise” and a high premium on a willingness to stiff-arm the courts as well as congressional committees. (Ask congressional staffers why oversight hearings have become practically extinct: they’ll tell you that the agency officials just blow smoke. They can afford to do that because Congress can’t credibly threaten them.)

This form of government is highly congenial to both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. Who will serve them?

Mrs. Clinton’s transition team would be awash in resumes from highly credentialed and committed applicants. It’s not just that there are a lot of them. It’s also that contemporary government so perfectly fits the ambition of a “Progressivism” that no longer believes in progress: hyper-active government, for the sheer fun of scratching itches and bossing people around with utter indifference to outcomes and zero prospect of being held to account for real-world consequences. Complicating factor: prospective officials, like the voters, should distrust Mrs. Clinton. When the inevitable scandal hits, they’ll be cannon fodder.

Mr. Trump has urged voters to ignore his obvious ignorance. He’ll hire really terrific people. Where will he find them, and who will they be? There’s no dearth of resume-builders who’d be happy to lord it over the country even on Mr. Trump’s behalf. The complicating factor is the reputational calculus. I find it inconceivable that Ted Olson would agree to another round at DoJ, or that Stewart Baker would volunteer to implement Mr. Trump’s mass deportation program: they’re not going to risk their good names. (Governor Christie’s early endorsement, obviously calculated to secure him the AG position or some comparable assignment, is not to the contrary. It indicates that high-level Trump jobs will go to individuals with a thuggish streak.) The harder question arises further down the line, over younger people seeking to build a reputation. They’ll have to ask themselves whether their careers will be enhanced by doing a really good job, as Deputy Assistant Secretary, at sparking a trade war with China. The process will select for individuals who (a) answer that question in the affirmative and (b) map out an Albert Speer defense: I joined them to prevent worse things.

Back in the glory days the Reagan transition teams had a slogan: people are policy. That’s entirely true, and a little bit scary.