Recent criticism and public calls for Rummy to resign by 6 retired generals have made major headlines and has put Bush in a defensive mood in recent days (CNN). Bush’s firmness on his position of keeping Rumsfeld where he is has caused two reactions. First, the public has once again realized the role, immunity and security of cabinet members in the executive branch: they are not elected and they have one purpose, “to serve at the pleasure of the President”. Although much leeway is often given to the cabinet and most are deserving experts in their fields, but at the end of the day it must be admitted that they are replaceable and that they report to only one boss. Due to this institutional structure, public scorn and dismay can be completely ignored by the President without much consequence (as is being done now).
In response, the second reaction is the attempt of a public coup of Rumsfeld by having retired generals asking for his resignation. For some reason, activists expect this new ploy to be magically effective because it tries to highlight professional criticism from within the organization. It is surprising to me that in a structure where citizens are intentionally put in charge of the military that officers are speaking out against their superiors. Although it must be understood that generals without uniforms are citizens too, but again, it is the President’s decision to keep or dismiss one of his own employees for better or for worse. Perhaps those designing this offense believe that increased media pressure might expose some weaknesses that will make resignation inevitable. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if this type of attack works.
History has shown that there is no set formula or procedure to cabinet member change ups and fires. Some occur out of necessity. Vice President Agnew (although not a cabinet member, but a symbolic example) resigned to avoid jail time when he accepted bribes. Others occur out of extreme public embarrassment. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz resigned in 1971 after being caught saying a racial joke (perhaps Trent Lott can relate). President Reagan’s first Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, resigned in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra Affair and then finally shot himself dead after personally offending Nancy….he found out that he was fired on the news. Others have been let go unexpectedly such as when President Carter fired four members in one year. Other change ups have been symbolic such as Secretary of Defense McNamara being succeeded by Clark Clifford who pushed for and symbolized a new withdraw mode in the administration. In addition, during second term Presidencies, all cabinet members traditionally resign before the second inauguration as a symbol that the President can chose who he wants.
Still, it is empirically shown that cabinet members are employees of the President, not the general public. They are replaceable, loyal political appointees who carry out the administration’s agenda. If the President wants to go down in flames to save one of his members’ reputation, so be it. Firmness can often be misinterpreted as stubbornness, and one must realize that democratic oversight begins and ends after election day. Letting the President manage his own team is essential towards executing executive power. Perhaps the best way to conclude this dialogue is to quote President Bush himself (in a real, coherent English sentence), “I’m the decider”.