Monday, February 02, 2009

For less than nothing

Rod Blagojevich famously intoned that "a Senate seat is a fucking valuable thing. You
don't just give it away for nothing." It turns out that a Senate seat---or to be more precise, the opportunity to name someone to a Senate seat---may be a thing of negative value. So it proved for Blagojevich and so it has proven in New York thus far for Caroline Kennedy, Governor David Paterson, and, perhaps ultimately for new Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Resentment from NYC and suburban voters over Gillibrand's support of gun rights and her vote against the TARP (despite its obvious benefits for New York if not the nation) could lead to a primary challenge in 2010 that leaves Gillibrand without her Senate seat and with no House seat either. Such is the Midas touch that sole appointment may create.

To be sure, governors in the past have made wise interim appointments and certainly the voters are fully capable of making unwise decisions in electing officials. Nonetheless, there is reason to think that entrusting the appointment power---even for a short period---to a single individual is a bad idea. Why might that be? Well, for one thing, because a single individual or small group lacks the "wisdom of crowds." In addition, I would add the inherent unpredictability of the popular mood. A governor might think that a "nanny problem" is disqualifying or that NRA support will be overlooked, but without actually seeing how these issues play out in public, it's quite hard to know.

If this speculation (and really that's all I have here) is right, then we can draw a general lesson that in making high-profile appointments, it's a good idea to canvass public opinion widely. I suspect this is true for less high-profile positions and in the private and non-profit sectors as well. At the very least, wide consultation on personnel matters creates the possibility of buy-in. Or to put the point more simply, democracy is usually a pretty good policy.

Posted by Mike Dorf