Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The mythical "Team of Rivals"

Surprise. President Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" may not have worked so well together:

By December 1862, there was a full-blown Cabinet crisis.

"We are now on the brink of destruction," Lincoln confided to a close friend after being deluged with congressional criticism and confronted by resignations from both Seward and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Goodwin suggests that Lincoln's quiet confidence and impressive emotional intelligence enabled him to survive and ultimately forge an effective team out of his former rivals, but that's more wishful thinking than serious analysis.

Consider this inconvenient truth: Out of the four leading vote-getters for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination whom Lincoln placed on his original team, three left during his first term -- one in disgrace, one in defiance and one in disgust.

Look, I'm sure "Team of Rivals" is a fantastic book. The concept actually sounds lovely. I'll even make sure to read it over the holidays or sometime soon after.

But nothing about today's political climate suggests that Obama needs to invite a circular firing squad into the Oval Office. He'll be inheriting enough challenges without creating some of his own. Bipartisanship is a little overrated, if you ask me.

To Obama's credit, I think all this talk of him bringing political rivals into the fold is a bit overblown. It's not like he offered Sarah Palin a position in his cabinet. Just Hillary Clinton, with whom he seems to agree on most major issues. I think trouble can be avoided if, as Matt Y suggests, Obama makes it clear that "it’s his team and his policies we’ll be looking at."

Mostly, I agree with Fallows and TNC that, in many ways, it's just lazy political analysis. We actually could call this approach "inclusive" or "unity cabinet" or "coalition-building." But, no, pundits and such are looking for easy (though utterly useless) analogies on deadline and in front of the camera. So it's easy to rely on the meme of the moment. I think the phenomenon might be aptly described as a "cognitive shortcut."

UPDATE: An old friend humbly submitted that I should withhold judgment about "Team of Rivals" until I read the book. I respect dude's opinion, so I'll be ordering that joint from Amazon pretty soon. Here's a promise: no more mention of the phrase on here until I've actually finished the book. Sounds reasonable, no?

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