This week’s announcement that former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers was withdrawing his name from consideration to become the next Federal Reserve Chairman didn’t surprise anyone. However, it marks a disturbing trend of nominations becoming major political footballs — often without clear reason — before they are even made.

Summers, who served as Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton, as president of Harvard and on President Obama’s economic team, was by all accounts well qualified for the nation’s top economic policymaking position. Unfortunately — like other previously well-respected institutions — the Fed has in recent years become increasingly politicized, and Summers’ nomination drew ire across the ideological spectrum.

Although opposition from gold standard extremists like Ron Paul is expected for any reasonable Fed nominee, Summers was notably defeated by the populist end of his own party. Senators like Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) threatened to block Summers in the Banking Committee, arguing that he was insufficiently supportive on financial regulation and — bizarrely — blaming him for the financial crisis. This is funny in a way, as Warren and Summers were both serving on Harvard’s faculty — not in Washington — during the crisis.

Losing Summers is undoubtedly a blow to the government. But there are other strong choices for candidates: Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen is liberals’ favored pick, and there have even been rumors about former Vice Chair Donald Kohn. Of more pressing importance, the saga of Summers signifies an unfortunate intensification in conflict over presidential appointments.

Nominations, as this summer’s fight over the filibuster proved, have long been contentious. Although the Senate has advised — not consented — to nominations since our republic’s early days, there seems to have been a shift beginning when Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork was thwarted in 1987.

The episode, which gave rise to the Politico-style verb “borking,” was highlighted when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) slammed Bork on the Senate floor mere hours after he was nominated. Similar battles shortly after nomination have developed during the parade of nominees who have since failed to clean up the paper trail of back taxes and undocumented nannies.

Still, these fights came while the Senate was considering the nomination, not while the president was considering whom to choose for the nomination. The Summers narrative marks the third time this year that Obama and his aides publicly and privately floated a nominee for a major office, allowed him or her to come under brutal attack from all comers and then was left flummoxed as his or her chances of success on Capitol Hill rapidly diminished.

The first was former U.S. Amb. to the U.N. Susan Rice, who came under withering — and trumped-up — Republican attack over controversial “talking points” she delivered in response to the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012. Led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a bulk of the criticisms were unduly focused on her supposed “unfitness” for the position of secretary of state.

Caught off guard by the timing and intensity of the attacks, the White House was flat-footed and Obama was belated in stepping up to Rice’s defense. After she tumbled from contention, the vultures and conservative groups of the Senate set their eyes on former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who was under consideration to be secretary of defense. Fortunately for Hagel, he was able to garner significant out-of-Senate support and turn the battle into to one over policy substance rather than personal style.

With the White House working overtime to keep wavering Democrats in line and with a bipartisan group of foreign policy luminaries backing him, Hagel landed the Pentagon job, thereby writing the playbook on how to overcome preemptive attacks on nominations.

Still, adding a pre-nomination minefield to an already arduous process is wrong. Public service is limited as it stands by its low salaries — Harvard scholar Michael Sandel points out that television’s Judge Judy makes 125 times more than Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts — and a debatably eroding prestige.

Senators and outside groups should wait for a nomination to arrive instead of forcing accomplished men and women through a gauntlet before their names are even considered. In the meantime, Obama should fight back, limiting leaks from the White House over who is under consideration for appointments and be willing to decisively defend potential nominees instead of letting them twist in the wind.

Otherwise, we’ll be left disappointed by the caliber of candidates willing to answer our country’s fickle call to service.

Evan Hollander is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. State of Play appears every other Friday

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *