Op-Ed

Shadowing Bush

Ben Klemens

The Democrats have four years of waiting before they can try for the
Executive branch again. During that time, they will need to do some
reorganizing. My proposal to the Democrats is that they establish a
shadow cabinet.

Here is how it works: the party who is not heading the Executive branch
elects a shadow president, who appoints a full cabinet. The cabinet
members follow the issues to which they have been assigned. Much like
in football, every person on the defensive team is assigned one person on
the offensive, and follows that person’s every move. As issues arise, the
appropriate cabinet member is the point-man for the opposition, presenting
to the press what would have happened if the shadow cabinet were handling
the situation, and in the process critiquing the actual cabinet member.

This induces more accountability for the elected cabinet, because
everything they do will be critiqued by one very well informed person who
has the ear of the public. A shadow cabinet member who does a good job of
persistently and coherently criticizing the elected cabinet member may
very well be able to influence government policy, despite not having an
official title. Also, there is the presumption that if the cabinet member
is doing his or her job competently then the shadow cabinet has a chance
of becoming the cabinet-elect after the next election, and will then
have the power to fully effect the changes they had promised as shadows.

If and when the changeover happens, the shadow cabinet member will be
ready to take over with a minimal adjustment period. The cabinet member
will already have filled his or her Rolodex, and will know the stumbling
blocks that the last cabinet member had to deal with.

Voters also benefit by having more information: they will be choosing
between two Executive branches on approximately even footing, instead
of one well-known administration and one risky unknown.

All of these benefits to a shadow cabinet would apply to either side if it were
not in power. But the liberal side would especially benefit from a shadow
cabinet, because they are famous for being a fragmented, disorganized
mess. As the sayings go, everyone in the mainstream is mainstream in
the same way, but there are hundreds of routes off the beaten path,
many of which go in opposite directions. Some on the blue team revel in
this diversity: MoveOn.org is one of the great success stories of the
campaign, bringing together literally millions of people in a loose
network built on a minimum set of principals, bragging all the while
about how diverse its base is. But unfortunately, greater diversity
translates into less focused policy.

The shadow cabinet, which would be administered by the Democratic Party
itself, is in many ways the opposite of MoveOn.org’s loose structure: it
is a hierarchy with one person at the top and a single person deciding
policy for each field of issues. Cognitive effort is expensive, so
many voters want a one-line summary of the liberal position; and a
journalist who has only a few column inches to spare and a few minutes
before deadline can not call dozens of organizations to assemble the
full spectrum of opinions. There is thus demand for a shadow cabinet
which dictates a narrow, focused policy on top of the thousands of
liberal organizations which will continue to work toward a vast range
of different goals.

There are details which a brief column can not address, such as who
would be both eligible and available to spend four years shadowing the
government, and whether tastes could change so much in four years that
shadow cabinet members appointed today would become `politically obsolete’
four years from now when they may take office. But these issues are not
insurmountable, as shown by working shadow cabinets in the UK, Australia,
Canada, and other countries around the world.

Even though Kerry was not chosen to head the Executive branch,
he still has the support of roughly half of the U.S.A.’s population,
and the shadow cabinet can be the mechanism to turn that support into
a real influence on the government’s day-to-day affairs, and to turn a
broad spectrum of beliefs and opinions into one coherent platform.

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