The look of a liberal Democrat.

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Clinton's Liberal White House Takes Shape

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Will Hillary Clinton be a standard-order mainstream liberal Democrat if she is elected in November? That view received some supporting evidence this week with the announcement of the leadership group for her transition planning team.

If personnel is policy -- and it most certainly is -- then Clinton's choices matter. Based on the eight people she named to her transition team, she'll fill her administration with governing professionals who have strong ties to the party, including some with strong ties to the current president.

The team consists of chair Ken Salazar; co-chairs Tom Donilon, Jennifer Granholm, Neera Tanden and Maggie Williams; policy wonks Ed Meier and Ann O’Leary; and chief economist Heather Boushey.

Several have worked for Clinton in the past. The one most closely associated with her is Williams, who was Clinton’s chief of staff in the White House, and was called in, in the late innings of the 2008 Democratic primary, to run Clinton's campaign. The two first worked together in the 1980s, when Williams was communications director at the Children’s Defense Fund. Williams is also a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton at the Clinton Foundation.

Before the Clinton White House, Williams had a career in Democratic politics, working for former Representatives Mo Udall and Robert Torricelli, the Democratic National Committee, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.  

Salazar, a former Senator and Secretary of the Interior, and Granholm, former Governor of Michigan, have plenty of Democratic Party experience but aren't known particularly as Clinton people. The same is true of the economist, Boushey.

Altogether, the group has deep ties to the Democratic Party.  That’s typical of recent White House staffs. But it hasn’t always been that way. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon staffed their White Houses with loyalists who had few ties to the president's party. Perhaps the best example was Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, a former advertising executive who had never worked for another Republican.

Later, presidents typically empowered close aides from home, such as Jimmy Carter’s Georgians (Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell), Ronald Reagan’s Californians (Michael Deaver, Ed Meese), George W. Bush’s Texans (Karen Hughes, Karl Rove) and Barack Obama’s Chicago team (David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett).

In recent years, such aides were more likely to have had separate careers and connections. Rahm Emanuel may have been from the same city as Obama, but he had a very separate career before and after serving as Obama’s first chief of staff.

Presidents who rely on party loyalists to staff their administrations are much less independent of their parties. They are constrained to run what the political scientist Richard Skinner calls “partisan presidencies.”

If she wins in November, Clinton is likely to incorporate in her administration a full range of groups aligned with the Democratic Party. After all, she ran her campaign based on winning their support. And her transition team has deep ties to those networks. (Here's a nice analysis from Vox’s Matt Yglesias.)

Of course, staff can become fiercely loyal to a politician regardless of their previous biographies. And presidents are not entirely constrained by the people they hire.

Still, a candidate who surrounds herself with mainstream liberal Democrats is going to find that her policy choices strongly tend to reflect mainstream Democratic liberalism. All of which makes a Clinton administration relatively easy to predict. She’ll be a mainstream liberal.  

  1. The only one who does not appear (from a web search) to have party ties is Meier, a lawyer who had a career outside of politics before working for the Clinton State Department, and then ran an education think tank before signing on to the Clinton campaign last summer.

  2. The turning point was actually Carter. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon all had White Houses with relatively weak ties to their parties; that began to change with Carter, and by George H.W. Bush White House staffs had become strongly party-connected.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net