Like … pretty much everyone who signed the open letter, he too was looking at another four, maybe eight years on think tank row, and worried that if he ever saw the inside of an administration again, he’d be out of shape.“That’s true either way, if either Clinton or Trump wins,” he said. “After Reagan and Bush, when Democrats spent 12 years in the wilderness, they came in rusty because they hadn’t had experience. They left government when they were in their mid-30s and came back in their 50s. They left office at the height of the Cold War, then came back and there’s no Soviet Union.”
This prompted a series of tweets from The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada:
As a general rule, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts takes requests from Lozada. So, do the abilities of foreign policy wonks atrophy when they’re out of power? Pretty much, yeah.
Well, sort of. A good policymaker requires a very particular set of skills, knowledge acquired over a long career. Substantive knowledge about an issue area or an area of the world is one obvious prerequisite. That’s the kind of knowledge that needs to be honed outside of the executive branch. As Henry Kissinger once said: “High office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.” To replenish intellectual capital, aspiring policymakers need to not be in office for a spell, otherwise their policy acumen curdles into disdain for everyone not in power.
There are skills, however, that only experience in a policymaking position can produce: how to manage the information flow, how to manage subordinates, how to get the interagency process to function, how to develop a nuanced understanding of foreign interlocutors, how to respond in real time to a crisis, how to properly brief superiors, how to handle media inquiries without creating a firestorm, and so forth. These are particularly challenging skills for individuals who have spent their formative years excelling at being good students. Organizing conferences and crafting think tank reports are, at best, a pale approximation of these kinds of tasks.
Furthermore, these skills are not constant, because the job is constantly changing. In the time between the two Bush administrations, for example, basic changes such as communicating by email transformed the rhythms of the policymaking process. The next Republican administration will be the first to manage foreign policy in a world dominated by social media. Issues that were low-level or nonexistent when they left will be at the top of the queue when they return. The only way to understand how these technological changes affect policymaking is to, well, make policy. The person quoted by Ioffe is correct: When it comes to diplomacy and national security, 12 years out of power is an eternity.
In an ideal world, the modern route for an aspiring foreign policy maker is to acquire some field experience and graduate training in one’s 20s, perform ably in a staff-level position in one’s 30s, and then graduate to the Senate-confirmable posts by one’s 40s. Of course, our world is not ideal. Politics and fortuna means that most individual routes to the executive branch are more circuitous than that. I have friends and acquaintances who, for various reasons, feel as though they missed their window for a particular policy slot. They fear that even if they get to serve in a future administration, they’d be like a 38-year-old toiling away in minor league baseball, without the happy Disney ending.
Just as politicians who have been out of the game for a long time prove to be rusty campaigners, policymakers who have been out of office for a long time will make a lot of mistakes when they return. And the longer they’ve been out of power, the longer it will take them to get back into policymaking shape.
I can imagine some readers thinking, “So what? Look at the policies these Republicans produced when they were in power!” And that may be a fair point. However, it overlooks the degree to which the second term of the Bush administration did not resemble the first. It also overlooks the counterfactual: If you think Trump’s policy ideas are nuts, imagine them trying to be implemented by someone with little understanding of how the policymaking process works.
That’s a disaster I try not to contemplate too much without large quantities of alcohol nearby.