In a debate a few days before the Republican runoff election in the 2nd Congressional District, both candidates rather casually referred to “the deep state”, a phrase much in currency on the right in this year’s campaigns.
Former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw, the eventual winner in last week’s runoff, said, “We need to take a look at the deep state, which is the fourth branch of government.” His opponent, State Rep. Kevin Roberts said, “We have got to go after the deep state.”
What is this force with such an excitingly sinister name, the political equivalent of “flesh-eating bacteria”? It turns out that the “deep state” is not a cabal of elite civil servants – a rogue FBI agent here, a crafty EPA regulator there – intent on repealing the 2016 presidential election. It’s nothing more than the old, familiar bureaucracy which we Republicans have been bashing since the New Deal.
When I made this conclusion, it was like Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, relieved to learn that the mysterious pâté de foie gras she’s been given is just “a little chopped livah”.
At Rotary Club luncheons and other gatherings over the years, I have heard many a harangue against civil servants who, while “shiftless and lazy”, somehow manage to work tirelessly to sabotage the policies of GOP presidents.
Surely among the 2.7 million federal civilians and 1.3 million active-duty military there are individuals who do not want President Donald Trump to succeed and who may take illicit actions to embarrass him and his administration. But these people, whatever their number, do not constitute a state-within-the-state. At worst, they represent a disciplinary problem for the president’s appointees in the departments and agencies. Being civil servants, they can’t be fired, but they can be reassigned, put in positions and places far from where they stirred up trouble.
In three different federal agencies in three different administrations, I learned that the vast majority of federal employees take their obligations to the nation seriously and, with very few exceptions, loyally. More to the point, they read the election returns and know that they may have to change what they’ve been doing the previous four or eight years. Then they wait for the new leadership to show up and tell them which way to go.
This is why it’s extremely important for President Trump to fill the appointed ranks of his administration, which he’s been woefully slow to do. Someone may have convinced him that the way to drain the Washington “swamp” (another trendy expression) is to leave the bureaucracy leaderless. This is wrong. Power is a constant, and if it’s not exercised in one place, it flows to another. In the case of the Trump Administration, it has flowed down to lower levels of the bureaucracy, since the upper levels are bare.
This has had the ironic effect of creating the very “deep state” that Trump and his supporters decry. Instead of bewailing the bureaucracy, they should try leading it.
In this regard, the federal government is no different than the Trump Organization. In his prior employment, Donald Trump did not expect buildings to rise on Manhattan streets at his command. He had to employ, inform, empower, and direct a team of people to do this work.
The successful government executive arrives on the job with two things: One, the president’s policies; and two, an ability to work with people. Except for the rare rogue, career civil servants will carry out those policies if they are properly explained and if they themselves are properly motivated.
George H.W. Bush said his experience as head of the CIA taught him that if one expects careerists to be inept and disloyal, they probably will be. On the other hand, if one expects them to be competent and loyal, they probably will be.
An earlier appointee, equally wise in the ways of Washington, was the late Chester Bowles. He said, “Getting the bureaucracy to accept new ideas is like carrying a double mattress up a very narrow and winding stairway. It is a terrible job, and you exhaust yourself when you try it. But once you get the mattress up, it is awfully hard for anyone else to get it down.”
That is the challenge for the Trump Administration: Not merely to curse the bureaucracy but to move it in the direction they want, in the hope that the next administration, whenever it comes, won’t easily be able to send it another way.