Today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has been incubating at the Treasury Department for the past year, assumes its independence. In selecting Richard Cordray to head the CFPB, President Obama has chosen an articulate, dedicated professional whose well-
regarded record has earned him the opportunity to serve the American people.
As Ohio’s attorney general, Cordray cracked down on big, mortgage-
lending banks for constructing what he described as a “business model built on fraud.” He fought the practice of predatory payday loans and prosecuted unlicensed lenders. A former “Jeopardy” champion, he’s smart, savvy and genial. But you won’t get to hear from him.
In the coming days, Cordray will almost assuredly come under withering assault from Republicans who have an ideological opposition to the consumer protection agency and an ideological affinity for big corporations who are threatened by its creation. In the face of this baseless onslaught, Cordray will remain silent.
The well-worn tradition during the confirmation process is that presidential nominees do not speak to the press, forgoing all public utterances and instead being chaperoned into closed-door meetings with senators and important constituency groups.
In 2000, the Brookings Institution published a booklet titled “A Survivor’s Guide for Presidential Nominees.” In it, the think tank offered the conventional advice to a potential nominee: “[D]on’t say anything at all to the press, on the record or off, while the Senate is considering your nomination.”
The calculus behind this 20th-
century approach is simple. If you are a nominee hand-picked by the president, chances are that you will be confirmed, so don’t mess up the likelihood of confirmation by saying something that might generate controversy.
Obama has been trying it that way, and it’s not working. Senate Republicans are abusing their “advise and consent” role to impugn and obstruct. The progressive legal advocacy group, Alliance for Justice, reports that the percentage of Obama’s judicial nominees confirmed — 58 percent — in the first two years of his presidency is the lowest ratio of any president in American history.
Executive branch nominees are facing the same obstruction. In fact, 44 Senate Republicans have pledged to filibuster John Bryson, nominated as commerce secretary, through no fault of his. The GOP caucus is holding the nomination ransom until it gets its way on pending free-trade deals.
The list of Obama nominees who have withdrawn their names from consideration after the GOP hijacked the process is impressive. Failed Federal Reserve Board nominee Peter Diamond is a Nobel Prize-winning professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; failed 9th Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu is a Rhodes scholar, former Supreme Court clerk and distinguished Berkeley law professor; and failed Justice Department nominee Dawn E. Johnsen served with distinction for years at the department under President Bill Clinton.
Cordray could face the same ignominious fate. A toxic partisan climate, amplified by a round-the-clock news cycle, demands a new strategy.
The White House should take the muzzle off its nominees. Let them talk to the press over and over again to tout their accomplishments. Allow them to publicly defend their records, as they are best and uniquely qualified to do.
By silencing a nominee, the administration gives its critics the opportunity to spout unfounded concerns about the nominee’s fitness to serve. The conversation quickly descends from one about the individual’s merit to meritless attacks on his or her character or qualifications.
The White House must be willing to cede a degree of control over its day-to-day messaging in favor of the greater victory of getting its nominees passed and its policies enacted. The administration shouldn’t be turning down all press requests, but should instead be picking and choosing the venues that can give the nominee a fair and reasonable hearing.
After withdrawing his nomination earlier this year, Nobel Laureate Diamond was finally free to speak out. He took to the pages of the New York Times and appeared on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” to bemoan the many misconceptions that had been advanced by Republicans about his record. It was a cogent and powerful response to his detractors. But it came too late.
It’s time for a no-regrets approach. Richard Cordray shouldn’t be quarantined from the media while Republicans go on the attack. This time, let the nominee speak.
Faiz Shakir is editor in chief of ThinkProgress, a political blog housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.