The Washington parlor game of taking umbrage with presidential appointments has been refined to an art form in recent days. Everyone from Rosa Brooks in these pages to Maureen Dowd in the New York Times has complained that the president's team is too old, too white, too male, too much resembling a California Raisin.
Let's be clear; Most of the Obama administration's wounds are self-inflicted. Why it rushed to roll out white, male appointees ahead of all others is something of a mystery, and will make the appointment of highly qualified women and minorities look as if the White House is engaging in damage control. But having appointed more than 40 percent of women to political slots, the administration is not quite the boys' club that Fox News and others are now bemoaning.
But people are missing the real reason for outrage regarding the president's appointments in the national security arena. For secretaries of both state and defense, the administration saw fit to float out its possible nominees via extended trial balloons. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice did not even make it to being formally nominated to head the State Department before being torn to pieces, largely over a manufactured controversy surrounding her involvement in the Benghazi consulate attack.
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel has fared better, and despite a ferocious campaign by groups who clearly don't have the president's best interest at heart, his name was actually put forward as the nominee at defense. With Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-NY) announcement that he would support the nomination, only a confirmation-hearing disaster or some new and ugly revelation from his past seems capable of derailing Hagel's rise to defense secretary.
Floating policy ideas and potential legislation via trial balloon is a time honored Washington tradition. It gives an administration some plausible deniability, and provides a finger in the wind before investing heavily in any given approach.
That is all well and good. But this willingness to put forth nominees, particularly for our two most important national security posts, via trial balloon is bad policy, bad politics, and an ungodly strain for those whose names are floated.
Incidentally, the origins of real "trial balloons" shed some light on why they are fine for policies but not people. When pioneering French brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfiere first began experimenting with hot air balloons in the 1870s, they were sensible enough not to send an actual human being up in their early test flights. Despite the fact that King Louis the XVI, who was quite taken with their work, suggested the brothers send a pair of criminals aloft, the scientists thought that sending a duck, sheep, and roster airborne was the better route. The trial balloon was born.