‘Pragmatic’ Personnel Eroding Reagan Mandate

Most of the problems afflicting the Reagan Administration nowadays stem from a neglected rule of government: Personnel is policy.

That’s the conclusion emerging from a searching critique of the new regime conducted by the Reagan-oriented Heritage Foundation (see Human Events, December 5).  The conservative think tank measures the Reagan record against a set of criteria published a year ago, defining needed changes in official policy as seen from a Reaganite perspective.  The net assessment, given the groups known sympathy toward the President, is remarkably negative.

In case after case, the burden of this analysis is the same: The major themes of the Administration and statements of its high officials are, for the most part, admirable.  But, in all too many instances, the sweeping changes of direction suggested by such statements have been derailed by failings in the realm of personnel, where policies must actually be carried out.  In the Reagan government, accordingly, image and reality are frequently at odds.

As the Heritage simply puts it: “The principle reason for the Administration’s failure to meet [early] expectations is surprisingly consistent from department to department and agency to agency – personnel.  Almost every chapter in this report notes personnel problems typified by delayed appointments, unqualified or misqualified appointments, and by the appointment of individuals who fail to understand and accept the President’s goals and policies.”

Examples cited included defense and foreign policy, international trade, food stamps, welfare and other entitlements, legal and constitutional questions, even some aspects of tax and budget policy.  The Administration is given credit for its efforts to roll back tax rates, slow the rate of budget growth and launch de-regulatory policies in several areas.  But the net effect of these initiatives has been to deflect, rather than reverse, the thrust of existing policy, while other initiatives have been much worse.

Difficulties with Congress, the media and pressure groups explain some of this, but not all of it. The Administration’s own procedures are a major factor.  In defense and foreign policy, for instance, it has projected a hard-line image including some excellent statements about Soviet intentions, Cuba, El Salvador, etc.  But specific measures taken, and the people taking them, reflect on a different outlook.

In foreign affairs, says Heritage, “possibly the greatest problem has been the absence of a sufficient number of key leaders at all levels of the state Department devoted to the Reagan philosophy of foreign policy….The Secretary decided to rely on career foreign policy service officers with whom he has worked over the years….Key intention a positions continued to be occupied by Carter holdover san career liberals.”

Trying to execute a sharp reversal of policy by relying on such personnel is like trying to play a piano while wearing boxing gloves.  Not impossible, maybe, but difficult.  Similar problems exist in other sectors of the government, particularly the Department of Justice. Again, despite some reassuring statements from top officials, numerous lower echelons are occupied by liberal careerists, Republican pragmatists, and holdovers from the Carter Era.  Specific policies reflect this staffing.

Such problems are not absent fro the White House itself.  The inner ring of advisers there tilts strongly in the “pragmatic” direction, with a heavy infusion of George Bush Republicans, who opposed the President in the primaries of ’76 and ’80.  Most notable of these is Richard Darman, deputy chief of staff, a follower of GOP liberal Elliot Richardson and aide to white House major domo James A. Baker III (himself the campaign manager for Bush in 1980).

Among his other duties, Darman handles presidential briefing paper son major issues.  He guides the flow of information to the chief executive, deciding whether materials submitted by Reagan’s advisers are “of proper intellectual quality to go to the President.”  If Darman thinks not, it doesn’t go in.

Somehow it seems unlikely that grass-roots conservatives who knocked themselves out for Reagan in 1p76 and 1980 believed they were preparing the way for an Elliot Richardson type to exercise “quality control” over briefing papers that go to the President, or for other instances of personnel in high places with little track record of sympathy for Reaganism.

The pattern is so widespread it seems to reflect a conscious scheme of management: Generate policy from above or outside the central structure of government, then implement it with professional managerial types with insider connections and credentials.  Sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t.  Such subordinates can not only carry out policy – and blunt it in the process – they also report on what is “feasible” in world affair or Congress, and thereby shape the alternatives available to their superiors.  Personnel is policy on both counts – and both spell trouble for the President.

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