Betsy DeVos is going to be confirmed as the next US secretary of education. Her views, though a bit on the extreme side, are fairly normal for a conservative Republican in 2016. She and her family are major donors to conservative think tanks and to many of the senators who’ll be voting on her nomination. Nobody in the conservative intellectual firmament is going to speak out against her, and no GOP senators will vote against her.
And that, actually, is the problem for Trump. Because as we saw Tuesday night, DeVos is going to struggle to perform effectively at her job.
It would be relatively easy to find a person with roughly DeVos’s views on education policy who also has the traditional background of an education secretary in politics or public sector school administration. Instead, Trump tapped a wealthy heiress who married into even more money and then became a major donor to conservative causes. And in a single round of questioning from senators on Tuesday, DeVos revealed herself to be a poor choice in all the ways you would expect a wildly underexperienced donor to be a poor choice.
She made a weird gaffe about guns and grizzly bears and displayed ignorance about basic education policy questions.
She also had no good answer to Bernie Sanders’s basic question of whether she’d even have been nominated if not for her family’s generosity.
The committee’s Republican majority defended DeVos by essentially trying to hide her. Senators were limited to three minutes each, and one round of questions rather than the usual two. The hearing oddly began at 5 pm, too late for evening newscasts and likely to end up buried by today’s news. She’ll be mocked a bit online today, and then confirmed later.
But while trying to hide DeVos from public view may be a service to her personally, it’s a disservice to both the Trump administration and the larger Republican Party. Presidents, after all, need Cabinet secretaries who can be effective public spokespeople for administration policy. The education secretary represents the administration on Capitol Hill, in the media, to university administrators and state and local officials, and as an interface with civil society groups that care about education. Even the heads of the second-tier agencies are important people in American politics and society, and having good people fill the roles is important.
In some ways this is especially true when the secretary deals with an issue that isn’t an important personal priority of the president, like education. State and local governments employ more than 10 million education workers who collectively teach more than 50 million kids. That Donald Trump’s coal-and-steel vision of American prosperity is relatively indifferent to educators’ work only heightens the responsibility that will fall on DeVos as she acts as the administration’s face on an issue that matters to many people, even if it doesn’t matter that much to Trump.
Donors aren’t used to tough questions
Republicans should want someone conservative in that role, of course. But they should also want someone who looks smart, sharp, and competent discussing the issues in front of the cameras. Someone with a sympathetic story to tell about the role of education in their lives and with an unquestioned command of the subject matter. The kind of person you would say you respect even while disagreeing. Someone who can win over skeptics or smooth the edges off disagreement. DeVos is not like that at all, because she’s wholly unlike previous nominees who come from politics or public sector education policy work where they have to do this stuff all the time.
DeVos has real background in education policy, but it’s background as a donor to conservative education groups.
Having spent some time working for nonprofits over the course of my career, I can tell you that generous funders are without exception the kindest, smartest, most perceptive people you will ever meet. Their questions are all great, and their points are all brilliant. The lessons they learned doing whatever it is they did to get the money they are now giving away are all 100 percent relevant and applicable to whatever it is you are discussing right now. And yes, that article they read last week really was brilliant and absolutely we should be doing more on that issue.
Which is just to say that rich donors live in a weird psychological bubble where everyone they talk to wants their money. Donors are never told their ideas are dumb, or that they’ve waded into subjects they don’t understand, or that it’s actually way more complicated than that, or that that idea’s been tried a dozen times before and always failed. This is great preparation for calling in favors from United States senators who owe you, but it’s terrible preparation for the actual work of a public official — which involves a lot of tough questions and skeptical audiences and calming of people who are angry or upset.
Republicans are only cheating themselves
When I was in school, teachers often offered a cliché that DeVos may be familiar with, namely that those who cheat in school are at the end of the day only cheating themselves. The various quizzes and tests and homework exercises, after all, are there as assessment tools. The idea is that both you and the teacher need a valid indicator of how well you are doing so that you can improve your performance and learn. Faking your way through the tests may get you a passing grade but it won’t get you actual mastery of the subject matter. And in the broad sweep of life, nobody cares whether you got an A in 11th grade English — but they certainly do care whether you can write a coherent paragraph of English.
By the same token, the superficial appearance that the Senate confirmation process is a gauntlet in which the president and his party “win” if the nominee is confirmed and “lose” if the nomination dies is misleading.
At the end of the day, there is going to be an education secretary, and that person is going to be a member of Trump’s administration. It’s in the Republican Party’s interest, more than anyone else, that that person be an effective member of the team. Shielding DeVos’s flaws from public scrutiny by scheduling an unusually brief hearing with limited questions at an odd time works well if your goal is to spare her embarrassment. By the same token, nobody can stop congressional Republicans from hustling Tom Price into office before anyone’s taken a rigorous look at his stock trading. The obviously unqualified Ben Carson seems to be a shoo-in at HUD.
But the GOP is only sabotaging itself by allowing Trump to draft this C-list roster. The president can’t be everywhere simultaneously — an effective Cabinet is how he extends his reach, influences more people, and gets more done. Rushing weak candidates through is a good way to put points on the board, but only weakens their own administration in the long run.