Opinion writer

Like secretary of state nominee Rex W. Tillerson, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, an advocate for school reform, has never served in government and never undergone a confirmation hearing. For someone used to polite interchanges and deference from cordial subordinates and peers, a Senate hearing with aggressive questioning by thoroughly prepared inquisitors can be traumatic. Any rookie who goes into the arena unprepared likely will come off poorly, no matter what his or her personal attributes. It happened to Tillerson — who got into needless fights with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — and it happened with DeVos last night in hard-to-watch exchanges with Democrats anxious to knock down a stalwart opponent of teachers unions.

DeVos should have been told to expect a question on guns in schools from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who pursued gun legislation in the wake of the horrific massacre at Newtown. She dodged and ducked and finally resorted to citing a story about the potential problem of grizzly bears in Wyoming schools that drew ridicule from Democrats. “I will refer back to Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.” (It was an inaccurate tale, as it turned out.)

And DeVos had this tense exchange with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.):

Kaine: If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter or private?
DeVos: I support accountability.
Kaine: Equal accountability?
DeVos: I support accountability.
Kaine: Is that a yes or a no?
DeVos: I support accountability.
Kaine: Do you not want to answer my question?
DeVos: I support accountability.
Kaine:  Let me ask you this. I think all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be equally accountable. Do you agree?
DeVos: Well they don’t, they are not today.
Kaine: Well, I think they should. Do you agree with me?
DeVos: Well no . . .
Kaine: You don’t agree with me. 

Surely the Trump team could have prepared her with a better response than that on a relatively substantial topic. She got into similar tussles with other Democrats on measuring school proficiency and requiring all schools that receive federal funds to comply with federal laws on students with disabilities.

Republicans and Democrats alike should have expected something was amiss when chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) limited questioning to five minutes per senator. (Note that this actually worked against DeVos, because senators eschewed long-winded monologues and asked clipped, focused questions.)

DeVos has strong backing among Republicans, but the rocky outing damaged her reputation and her ability to make a case (hers and the incoming administration’s) for school choice and expanded charter schools. Moreover, the DeVos and Tillerson hearings should give Republicans pause about the competency of the administration. They will be the ones to cast votes for candidates who did not appear prepared; they’ll be the ones to get flak if DeVos doesn’t perform well. They may tire at some point of bailing out the White House if the new administration cannot do the bare minimum to help its own nominees. Finally, the shoddy preparation provided to those new to government service may discourage others from accepting spots. Who wants to accept a bid to go into government if your new boss sets you up to fail?

Poll after poll shows the public disapproves of the Trump transition and his nominees. Hearings like the one last night do not exactly inspire confidence. Like it or not, when Trump’s nominees do poorly, his standing with the public (rightfully) suffers.

The argument for hiring businesspeople and others outside government rests on the proposition that smart, competent people in one field can do well in another and bring new ideas and energy to government. The Trump team undercuts that argument when its ill-prepared nominees don’t sound informed or competent. Maybe both Trump and his nominees need to be put through their paces by people who respect the complexity of policy issues and the importance of the departments and agencies that they will be leading.