After all the fuss and drama associated with a presidential campaign, election, and inauguration, you’d think most political types would want to step away from the fray and go into hibernation somewhere far away from the nation’s capitol. Not so in Washington. Political gamesmanship is never more prevalent that during a presidential transition. As the Trump people start to populate federal agencies across town, individuals and organizations from both parties are trying to figure out what the new administration means for them and how they can make the most of it.
While most of us have heard about President-elect Trump’s cabinet nominations, (more on Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos later), the administration is also trying to fill some 4,100 political appointee slots. These positions are varied and occupy places all along the political food chain, but who eventually gets appointed really does matter. Cabinet heads are only as good as their staff, and the experience and temperament of political appointees can significantly affect the ability of a federal agency to be a force of good or otherwise.
For those who would be Trumpsters, the task at hand involves scouring the infamous Plumb Book, the purplish book released in early December that lists the new administrations’ many patronage positions. Those interested in serving the new administration will perfect the art of self-promotion and humble-bragging in pursuit of these jobs. Nobody will ever admit that they want to work for a new administration; rather it is something they must do “as a citizen and patriot.”
While Obama’s political appointees scramble to find new jobs either in DC or elsewhere, would-be Trumpsters are working their networks to gain access to the Trump transition team. The outgoing and incoming teams are a study in contrasts: one giddy with clueless anticipation and the other battle weary and a little jaded. Ships in the night have more in common than former and current political appointees.
At the Department of Education, Team DeVos is falling into place with many a familiar face to be found. Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett (1985-1988) is handling the transition for DeVos and will likely remain a close advisor. Other players from the school choice and charter school world also have been involved in the transition and many of them will likely fill key slots at the Department.
Ironically, Jeb Bush — President Trump’s somnolent campaign nemesis — emerges a big winner under Team DeVos. As Politico’s Caitlin Emma pointed out in her excellent piece earlier this week (http://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/jeb-bushs-consolation-prize-233097), Bush and DeVos have a long history together. Both are ardent supporters of school choice, and DeVos has been a generous and engaged contributor to Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellent in Education. Several high-level Bush people also have been involved in the transition, and there is every reason to believe the Department of Education under DeVos would support like-minded policies and programs. If critics accused Team Duncan as being code for Team Gates, does that mean Team DeVos will become code for Team Bush?
Before anyone opens that can of worms, DeVos still needs to clear the senate confirmation process. Although Trump continues to sing her praises, she is one of the eight nominees that Congressional Democrats have singled out for additional scrutiny. Her hearing is set for Jan. 11, and you can be sure public school advocates like AFT’s Randi Weingarten and others will be ready to offer their own critique of the nominee.
MARIA FERGUSON (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.