Shadow Cabinet

The always-provocative Jonathan Rauch has a slightly curious column in The Atlanic praising the new front-loaded primary schedule. Yes, he acknowledges some flaws, but he thinks a longer general election campaign would be a pretty good thing. Finally, he writes this:

For me, though, what tips the scales in favor of early primaries, with the resulting long general-election campaign, is that they give U.S. politics an opportunity to mimic one of the best features of British-style parliamentary politics: the shadow government. American commentators often observe, with envy, that political campaigns in parliamentary systems are much shorter. In Britain, the formal campaign and election span weeks, not months or years. But such commentators tend to overlook the fact that by the time a British election rolls around, voters have had months or years to get to know the candidates, parties, agendas, and even cabinets. The party and prime minister in office are known quantities. Typically, opposition leaders are familiar too, because the parties choose their leaders well in advance of most elections. And these leaders choose shadow cabinets, the men and women who would ascend to ministerial portfolios if the party won. In other words, the voters decide not just between two candidates or even two parties but, in effect, between two governments.

For me, I’m all for the shadow cabinet concept. It’s also even arguably true that “Until the modern era of front-loaded primaries, any similar arrangement in the United States would have been all but impossible.” Still, just because it’s now possible doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen. Indeed, the odds of it happening strike me as overwhelmingly small. The reason is that it serves candidates interests just fine to leave as large a pool as possible of semi-important people looking for jobs. Absent a shadow cabinet, you’ll probably have Richard Holbrooke telling everyone who might possibly care what Richard Holbrooke thinks that whichever person happens to have won the Democratic nomination is a brilliant individual with sound instincts guided by the greatest team ever assembled. But if you do have a shadow cabinet and it doesn’t include Holbrooke well, then, here come the off-the-record quotes about how so-and-so’s a bit of a softie, not really up the job, a bit of a left-wing nut, etc., etc., etc.

Advertisement

And that’s not to cast any particular aspersions on Holbrooke, I just don’t know off the top of my head the names of any likely candidates to be a Democratic Secretary of the Treasury. The point is that candidates try to avoid sending clear signals about this kind of thing for a reason.