Now that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has announced Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential pick — an unusual move for a presidential candidate trailing in the polls and weeks out from his party’s convention — speculation will inevitably follow about who front-runners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might select as running mates. Not only should they follow Cruz’s lead, they should go a step further and, well before Election Day, publicly name the individuals they’d appoint as Cabinet members.
That Cruz’s approach isn’t already the norm is a weakness in the way we choose our chief executive.
The American public deserves to have at least a sense, before ballots are cast, of those who would hold the most powerful positions within the next administration. This is particularly true for the departments of State, Treasury, Defense and Justice, whose leaders are invested with authority over many of the core activities of the country — everything from negotiating treaties to overseeing federal criminal investigations at the highest level.
But not just the big four: the secretary of Health and Human Services oversees the single-largest slice of total federal spending; and the need for a competent and experienced secretary of Homeland Security is self-evident in an era when border security and the threat of terrorism weigh on citizens’ minds. Even the seemingly smaller Cabinet portfolios can wield influence over major areas of public policy, including energy, transportation andlabor. And all Cabinet members, by statute, are in the line of succession to the presidency.
So why aren’t Cabinet picks announced beforehand? Some explanations make more sense than others.
One potential argument is that the official transition period before Inauguration Day is needed to sort out the complexities of staffing the sprawling federal government. The transition is, as Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service recently noted, “the most important takeover of any organization in history.” But while several weeks may indeed be required to fill the range of executive-branch appointments, senior-most officials could be named much earlier. Identifying Cabinet secretaries earlier would enable them to be more actively involved in the broader staffing of their departments, thereby easing the transition period.
Other considerations would be more overtly political. The prospect of a plum role in the next administration surely motivates potential officeholders to devote their energy and enthusiasm to presidential candidates and their parties, and doling out the spoils of victory too early could blunt the support of campaign surrogates who wind up being passed over for top jobs.
Naming the Cabinet earlier would also complicate the respective candidates’ narrative and message. Think Sarah Palin, and you don’t have to imagine the jolt that certain vice presidential selections can cause. Then extend that to a list of a dozen or so names. Every gaffe by a prospective secretary could generate distracting campaign-trail headlines.
Still, some names would boost the front-runners — Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, perhaps, as Treasury secretary in a Clinton administration. And while part of Trump’s appeal is his outsider status, naming his Cabinet in advance could offer reassurance to less committed voters that he would enlist the expertise of seasoned policy hands with deeper knowledge of the issues than his.
If named before Election Day, Cabinet designees could fan out across nation on the campaign trail, and thereby become better known to the American people. Cabinet members named before the election would also benefit from enhanced legitimacy and authority once in office. After all, if voters select their candidate based, in part, on the teams they choose, the team members indirectly gain the voters’ stamp of approval. This ratification would enable members of the next Cabinet to build more explicitly on the electoral mandate of the incoming administration.
Once in office, a stronger Cabinet would also improve governance. As I outlined in a 2012 policy brief for the Progressive Policy Institute, “the job of the presidency has grown so large, so overwhelming in its power and responsibility, that no one human can excel in all its many dimensions, from the ceremonial to the political, from making policy to managing a vast bureaucracy. In an atmosphere of bitter partisan division and a 24-hour news environment, presidents more than ever need help at the highest levels possible.” An empowered Cabinet is uniquely positioned to provide such help.
In parliamentary democracies, such as Great Britain, it is the norm for most members of an incoming Cabinet to be known to voters well before an election. Part of this is structural, since parliamentary systems are set up to include a “shadow cabinet” composed of the opposition party’s members of parliament, mirroring members of the party in power at each ministerial-level position. In these systems, of course, the prime minister retains postelection flexibility to assemble an executive team that best reflects his or her electoral mandate. Comparatively, though, citizens in many democracies go to the polls with more specifics about who will run their next government than Americans do.
We certainly don’t need to adopt a parliamentary system to adopt one of its most logical features.
In this messy political year, it might be too much to expect nominees to announce comprehensive lists of names in advance of their party conventions. On the other hand, should a contested nominating convention take place, delegates voting on second and third ballots might find this information useful. At a minimum, before November, the nominees should provide voters with a better picture of the type of people they would entrust to run the federal government.
Clinton once wrote that “it takes a village” to bring up a child. So, too, it takes an entire executive team to successfully govern a fractious and complex nation.
Raymond A. Smith is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a lecturer at Columbia University and author of “Importing Democracy: Ideas from Around the World to Reform and Revitalize American Politics and Government.” He wrote this article for the Washington Post.