Czar wars



My Sunday print column, updated and expanded:

The latest fit of conservative paranoia is that Barack Obama, the alien in our midst, seeks to transform America into Mother Russia, crafting a new totalitarian state that will be run by his own private army of policy "czars." The lunacy never ends.

Yes, the Republican right has suddenly discovered the word czar - roughly 36 years after it was first used by the press as a nickname for Republican Richard Nixon’s in-house energy guy, a Republican named John Love. The word has been popular for decades, in part because, frankly, it fits snugly in a headline. The word actually makes no sense in the American context – after all, the real czars ordered pograms - but it has become a thumbnail descriptive for the scores of policy mavens hired by virtually every president since Nixon. 

The word was rarely if ever cited as prime facie evidence of a president’s evil intent – until now, naturally. With strong assists from Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck at Fox News, Republican politicians are suddenly complaining that these policy hires are “an affront to the Constitution,” that Obama "has more czars than the Romanovs" (the Mother Russia insinuation, courtesy of John McCain), that Obama is "giving half the White House staff the title of czar" (a blatant lie, uttered this weekend by Mitt Romney while pandering to a Christian conservative convention; the truth is, not a single White House aide has that title).

Obama-haters are also a tad ignorant about some of the historical particulars – many of them think the president is a communist, whereas the czars and the Romanovs were fierce foes of the communists – but emotion does tend to trump the intellect. (One priceless anecdote comes from Joe Klein, the Time magazine commentator. He recently spoke with a town hall dolt who was convinced that Obama's hiring of "czars" was proof of commie sympathies. Klein asked her where she gets her news; she said that she likes William Bennett, the right-wing radio host - not realizing, of course, that Bennett himself had once worked for Ronald a czar. To quote Homer Simpson, "D'Oh!")  

Whatever. If the Republican right can get some political mileage from yelling "czar," nothing else matters. Not even the obvious fact that their entire lament is riddled with hypocrisy.

For instance, conservatives complain that Obama has hired roughly 32 policy people who can be described as czars, largely because, according to the right’s criteria, these White House officials were not confirmed by Congress, or because they supposedly lack formal titles, or because answer only to Obama. (Glenn Beck admitted recently on his website that "the number is somewhat in the eye of the beholder.") Yet, by employing the same loose criteria, the roster of so-called czars in the George W. Bush administration totaled somewhere between 36 and 47.

Amnesia is sometimes rampant on the Republican right, so perhaps this partial list might spark some memories. President Bush hired - among many others - a science czar, cybersecurity czar, regulatory czar, weapons czar, bailout czar, bird-flu czar, AIDS czar, intelligence czar, Afghanistan czar, war czar, terrorism czar, drug czar, faith-based czar, food-safety czar, Mideast peace czar, manufacturing czar, and Katrina cleanup czar. (Using the GOP’s criteria, that list could easily include Karl Rove, the top domestic policy adviser who dodged congressional subpoenas; and even Dick Cheney, a duly-elected veep who, by withholding crucial energy policy information from the public, at times appeared to behave like a true czar.)
Midway through Bush’s second term, the list had grown so long that satirist Andy Borowitz quipped that what Bush still lacked, yet truly needed, was "a lying czar."

Yet, in all those years, there was nary a cry about imperial Russia from the president’s congressional cheerleaders, nor from his fans on Fox.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander is the guy who called Obama’s czars "an affront to the Constitution," but, back in 2003, he lauded Bush on the Senate floor for appointing an AIDS czar and a manufacturing czar. Robert Bennett, one of Alexander’s colleagues, has assailed Obama’s czars as "undermining the Constitution" - yet, a decade ago, he told CNN that Bill Clinton needed to get up to speed on the cybersecurity threat and that therefore he, Bennett, would "welcome" the naming of what he called a "a Y2K czar."

And during the final year of the Bush era, 175 House Republicans (along with 20 senators, including Alexander) voted for a bill to create a new White House job, an Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator. In translation, that’s a czar. All told, when a conservative California congressman named Darrell Issa was recently asked on TV whether he and his party brethren had ever opposed Bush’s use of czars, he replied, "No, we didn’t."

Nor do they seem very schooled in American history; the fact is, presidents in both parties dating back to Andrew Jackson have hired their own policy loyalists. Jackson had his "kitchen cabinet." Calvin Coolidge employed Herbert Hoover as a virtual relief czar after the Mississippi River burst its levees and devastated the land. Franklin D. Roosevelt hired a number of in-house economic wonks to fight the Great Depression.

The Republican right insists that Obama’s czarist tendencies are different, that his whole intent is to evade congressional scrutiny. Fox News, which characterizes Obama’s America as "Land of the Czars," recently aired photos of 30 czars, and complained that "they don’t have to be confirmed." That bit of reportage was as overblown as Fox’s graphic of a czarist crown atop the White House. The fact is, nine of those Obama advisers were confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and two were appointed to posts created by congressional statute.

Issa, the Republican congressman, told Fox News that all czars should be subjected to congressional scrutiny: "Imagine 32 people operating without any oversight by the House or the Senate." But this weekend, two former Justice Department lawyers who served Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush strongly defended Obama. In a Washington Post guest column, David Rivkin and Lee Casey argued that, constitutionally, Congress actually has no right to oversee the czars or to pre-screen them via the confirmation process. They wrote:

"The White House czars are presidential assistants charged with responsibility for given policy areas. As such, they are among the president's closest advisers. In many respects, they are equivalent to the personal staff of a member of Congress. To subject the qualifications of such assistants to congressional scrutiny - the regular confirmation process - would trench upon the president's inherent right, as the head of an independent and equal branch of the federal government, to seek advice and counsel where he sees fit."

Fox has also darkly has warned that these czars have "a major influence on public policy" - while naturally failing to mention that czars typically have less power than your local alderman. That's the reality. Because the czars are supposed to coordinate policy among turf-conscious agencies, they generally lack the clout to force anyone to do anything. (That’s one big reason why Tom Ridge got so frustrated while serving as Bush’s terrorism czar.)

Rivkin and Casey, the ex-Reagan and Bush lawyers, made this point as well: "However much the czars may drive the policy-making process at the White House, they cannot - despite their grandiose (and frankly ridiculous) appellation - determine what that policy will be."

Will facts such as these dampen the ire of those who perceive Obama as a closet czarist who perhaps is bent on replacing "The Star Spangled Banner" with the mournful marching music from Dr. Zhivago? Of course not. On the other hand, we’ll know that the czar message has lost its sting if they suddenly start insisting that the high number of White House sturmfuhrers is proof of Obama's closet Nazism.