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Nice Guys Finish ... First?

I was happily surprised to see that Michael Bennet has been tapped to replace Ken Salazar as a Senator from Colorado. I knew Michael from law school and working in DC thereafter, and he always struck me as very smart, able, and all-around impressive. What makes his appointment so surprising is that he is so tremendously ... nice. People like that aren't supposed to get ahead, least of all in politics. They're the ones who get stepped on by the ambitious, ruthless climbers who reach the top (or so the movies suggest). In most every way Michael's personality is totally unlike the stereotype of an average politician. For this reason, I would never have expected him to run for the Senate on his own. I am not saying that because he is nice he will be a better Senator, nor am I suggesting that anyone should support him on that basis. But I do find it striking that he was chosen. I also think it is not coincidental that he was appointed, rather than having to run for the office.

This also raises larger questions about differences between the sort of people who get elected and those who get appointed. I recall that, after a couple of scandals in Arizona (remember AzScam?) resulted in the appointment of a bunch of state representantives to replace those who were caught in the scandals, someone analyzed the appointed legislators versus the elected ones and found the appointed superior on most every metric (no, I no longer recall the details). This is most relevant (post-17th Amendment) to the selection of state officials, notably judges. The variation among states is wide, with some (e.g., Texas) electing almost everyone above dogcatcher, others relying heavily on appointments, and still others having appointees who then run for election when their term is up (the closest analogue to Michael's position). Co-conspirator Eric and my colleague Mitu Gulati have done some work comparing judges who are subject to different kinds of appointments, though I can't recall which of their papers are still in the "Don't cite or circulate this" stage.

Anyway, I guess that sometimes nice guys do finish first.

ll (mail):
"Mel Ott. He's a nice guy. He'll finish last."
1.3.2009 10:05pm
Cornellian (mail):
I am not saying that because he is nice he will be a better Senator, nor am I suggesting that anyone should support him on that basis.

Personally I think being nice is a significant factor. Other things being equal, I'd much rather support a nice person for senator than a nasty one.
1.3.2009 10:07pm
TGGP (mail) (www):
1.3.2009 10:51pm
therut (mail):
Well yes he is nice and graduated from Yale but can he read the Constitution and does he support the 2nd amendment. After I know that answer I can then proceed to see if his niceness matter a whit to me. That is my starting point of knowing what he thinks of me a citizen of the USA. Does anyone know? Since he is associated with the mayor of Denver I have a bad feeling.
1.3.2009 11:08pm
Mikhail Koulikov (mail):
someone analyzed the appointed legislators versus the elected ones and found the appointed superior on most every metric (no, I no longer recall the details).

A quick search of JSTOR and the major polisci databases isn't turning up anything. Any recollection at all where this was published?

- Mikhail Koulikov
1.3.2009 11:37pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Congrats to him. He's a good guy who just jumped into a pit of vipers; hope he wins.

A Rep., now long dead, had a friend get elected to the Senate. The friend came to him for advice. He said to remember that in the House you wait long to make your mark. In the Senate it can come early. Lead a floor fight, or a filibuster, etc..

A while later the friend came back and said he'd done just that. Then Senate president pro tem Robert Byrd slapped him on the back and said he'd done well, and "I'd like to count you on my team." He said yes.

The rep relied he's blown it. He should have snarled back "Go f__k yourself, Byrd!" Then Byrd would have figured he was someone to be reckoned with, not someone to be manipulated with casual praise.

He's also gotta be careful with his staffers. Nobody gets a bigger ego than staffers. The chief may be nice, but the folks he hires, young one raised above their stations, may become very haughty. I knew a guy filming for a documentary who remarked that after working in Hollywood he was accustomed to dealing with enormously inflated egos, but DC was a revelation.
1.3.2009 11:53pm
Jacob Berlove:
One position I always thought should definitely not be on the ballot is the county coroner. I thought whoever decided to put it on the ballot was crazy. But six years ago in Hamilton County, Ohio, the coroner was involved in a heavy scandal which included opening up the morgue to art photographers to take photos of deceased without permission of their family members. The coroner now faced and opponent on the ballot, and sure enough lost the election. I doubt any state ethics panel would have accomplished the same result.
1.3.2009 11:53pm
raven397 (mail):
Bennett seems like a decent, intelligent, guy, but he did nothing as Denver school supt. consider the points set out by Steve Sailer at his blog today,m http://isteve.blogspot.com/2009/

Failing Upward via Public School Reform

With the Democratic governor of Illinois' pick for the U.S. Senate getting much publicity, the Democratic governor of Colorado has made sure to appoint the most exquisitely genteel individual imaginable to the U.S. Senate: Denver school chief Michael Bennet, age 44, the former editor of the Yale Law Review. His brother Jim is the editor of the Atlantic Monthly and his father was head of National Public Radio and president of Wesleyan U.

After Michael Bennet got rich, he then decided, in the mode of the time (e.g., Bill Gates), to fix the public schools. After all, how hard could it be?

A couple of years ago, in an article Across Difficult Country summarizes here, The New Yorker profiled Bennet's travails in trying to close a gang-infested Denver high school with terrible test scores, Manual. It turned out that the all-Mexican student body and their families kind of liked their terrible school, didn't appreciate poor Bennet's meddling, and, not being indoctrinated in the theology of the overclass, didn't expect to do much better at a different school just because it had enjoyed higher test scores before they arrived.

Yet, much in the manner of Barack Obama's unsuccessful chairmanship of the lavishly-funded Annenberg Chicago Challenge, Bennet has managed to fail upward.

Evidently, the point of being a public school reformer these days is to become known as a public school reformer, not to actually reform the public school. What matters is that you publicly proclaim that you believe the public schools can be fixed. Nobody actually expects you to be able to do anything with public school students, at least not enough to hold it against you when you fail, as the skyrocketing careers of Obama and Bennet demonstrate.
1.4.2009 12:01am
Jacob Berlove:
Another position I think should be elected is that of police chief. Whereas judges largely have the job to protect unpopular people from illegal action, and thus may well do better appointed, the same logic doesn't seem to hold for police chiefs. My sense is that appointed police chiefs set policies for their departments that almost always disproportionately land on the side of officer security even when they don't do much to protect the public. Their is practically no accountability for these policies, such as when to use tasers, deadly force, or handcuffs, no-knock searches, or commando drug raids, as the courts almost always defer to police judgment on most of these policies, and it's almost impossible to get a legislature to key in on them. But a competitive race between police chiefs with platforms like these can allow the public to have a serious say on what the policies should be, and would finally put somewhat of an effective check on many largely unaccountable law enforcement departments.
1.4.2009 12:04am
Oren:
Cornellian, you are exactly wrong -- our Senators are far too congenial with each other as it is. It's amusing to me that Ted Stevens goes down for his earmarks while his good buddy &partner in crime Inouye goes on blissfully. It was joked that the two of them had such control over W&M that the committee didn't really change hands following an election.
1.4.2009 12:51am
Paul B:
Stuart,

I would hope you can follow up and find sites that let us know what a "superior" judge or legislator is. I'm guessing that an academic doing a study of desirable traits in either office would find things like advanced degrees from prestige universities to be proof of having officials appointed rather than chosen by the great unwashed masses.

Senator Bennet sounds a lot like Caroline Kennedy to me.
1.4.2009 2:06am
Dave N (mail):
Oren--

Appropriations, not Ways and Means (the Senate counterpart to that House Committee is Finance). But aside from that, your overall point is spot on.
1.4.2009 2:06am
cubanbob (mail):
Flawed as elected officials are, they at least have a measure of accountability that appointed officials do not.
1.4.2009 2:28am
sbron:

"It turned out that the all-Mexican student body and their families kind of liked their terrible school, didn't appreciate poor Bennet's meddling, and, not being indoctrinated in the theology of the overclass, didn't expect to do much better at a different school just because it had enjoyed higher test scores before they arrived."


I predict the greatest failure of the Obama administration will be an ever-widening "achievement gap" between Latino and Asian students. (I left whites out, since the gap between white and Asian students is just as great as between Latino and white.) If Obama's educational philosophy is anything like Bill Ayers', or even Michael Bennett's and Bill Lann Lee's then he believes that Latino students' academic failure are solely due to institutional racism and "white" privilege. Any progress on this front requires confronting the lack of motivation ("acting white") and anti-Western cultural attitudes among Latino immigrants and their children. And Libertarians, we really have to question whether importing an anti-western, poorly educated underclass just to bust wages is a good idea.
1.4.2009 10:14am
Katl L (mail):
The Effect of Judicial Institutions on Uncertainty and the Rate of Litigation: The Election versus Appointment of State Judges
By F. Andrew HanssenThe Journal of Legal Studies. Volume 28, Issue 1, Page 205--232, Jan 1999
1.4.2009 11:02am
Katl L (mail):
The Effect of Judicial Institutions on Uncertainty and the Rate of Litigation: The Election versus Appointment of State Judges
By F. Andrew HanssenThe Journal of Legal Studies. Volume 28, Issue 1, Page 205--232, Jan 1999
1.4.2009 11:02am
Mikhail Koulikov (mail):
Thanks! And looking around following this one turns up something potentially even more interesting - and definitely a lot more timely:

Choi, S., Gulati, G.M., &Posner, E. (2008). Professionals or politicians: The uncertain empirical case for an elected rather than appointed judiciary. Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, in press
http://jleo.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/ewn023
1.4.2009 12:23pm
Mikhail Koulikov (mail):
Of course, I'm an idiot - I guess that's the paper the original post is referring to...
1.4.2009 12:24pm
WJR:
The blog post by Sailer is hardly persuasive. Its best evidence that Bennet "failed" was that the students of Manual High School didn't appreciate their school being closed down. Bennet's reform plan is widely credited in Denver as on the path to success--he closed the school down for a year, and is reopening it gradually, one grade class at a time. It was an extremely controversial move when it occurred, and Bennet took plenty of flak for the decision but stuck to his guns.

But hey, analysis devoid of facts can be persuasive if the elitism card is thrown down, which Sailer seems to find an effective method of argument.
1.4.2009 1:32pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
I really want to know what the backstory here is. John Hickenlooper seemed like the obvious choice; successful restaurateur, reasonably successful mayor, about to be term-limited out of a job. Who did he screw and how? Or is Bennet a place-holder? He is so not connected with the local Democratic Party here that he's gonna have one helluva job building the base to deal with a contested primary.
1.4.2009 2:37pm
loki13 (mail):
I would say that the blog post by Sailer is dishonest, but that would do a disservice to a word that a least shares some letters with honest- Sailer never even comes close in his blog.

And that is a terrible misreading both of the New Yorker article (which has an incredible amount of *gasp* nuance but is very flattering in context to Bennet's efforts) and the type of reforms Bennet has done. Sailer- never one to let "facts" or "sources" get in the way of a good polemic.
1.4.2009 3:43pm
Tom Round (mail):
> "and still others having appointees who then run for election when their term is up (the closest analogue to Michael's position)."

Another intermediate position (not, as far as my cursory glance can tell, used much in the US) is to have all judicial and most executive positions appointed by the Governor, but allow the voters by petition to recall a particular incumbent, who is then barred from being re-appointed for a substantial period (say, 5-10 years). Call it an "optional long ballot". The nonpartisan technocrats can take office and do their job without having to kiss babies and run "I believe in Harvey Dent" advertisements. If they attract public attention, by incompetence, misconduct, or excessive partisanship, then they have to campaign (and even then, there is no opponent to go negative on).

> "One position I always thought should definitely not be on the ballot is the county coroner."

Here in Australia, an ongoing debate over whether to become a Republic is complicated by the fact that:

(a) 90 per cent or more want to keep a Westminster system with Prime Minister as head of govt (sorry, guys, the US is always cited as a bad example, sometimes unfairly),

but

(b) support for three different models of ceremonial, nonpartisan Head of State is split roughly evenly (25-40% each, depending which poll you read) between the status quo (Governor-General appointed by Queen on PM's advice) and the two Republic options (directly-elected President vs one chosen by Parliament).

To me it seems fairly clear that people who want a directly-elected but ceremonial/ nonpartisan President are wishing for the moon. Yes, smaller countries like Ireland, Iceland, Austria and Finland manage it, but Australia has 21 million people on a continent the size of the Lower 48; any candidate would need millions of dollars and thousands of campaign workers to have a chance. Whereas indirect election by Parliament is likely to produce the same sorts of Presidents as there have been Governors-General - judges, military officers, and the occasional retired politician. However, conversations with non-political-scientists while slipping prawns on the barbecue indicate that many voters don't see the link between institutions and the people chosen.
1.4.2009 3:50pm
Cornellian (mail):
Cornellian, you are exactly wrong -- our Senators are far too congenial with each other as it is.

They're entirely different things. One can disagree without being obnoxious, and a jerk who agrees with you on some issue is still a jerk.
1.4.2009 5:55pm
SPQR (mail) (www):
Looking at Denver Public Schools from the sidelines here, I've been less impressed by Bennett. DPS needed a lot of shaking up, and he started doing some, but his efforts burned out quickly. I think he's been looking for the exit all during '08. More recently, he's started to do some suspicious stuff like undermining the relatively successful alternative school downtown - Emily Griffith Opportunity School - probably because of the value of the real estate its on.
1.4.2009 7:47pm
Samual:
Sbron, up-thread, said Latinos are anti-western? Perhaps, you don't know where the word Latino comes from. Here's a hint. Drop the "o".
1.4.2009 10:05pm
CJColucci:
Michael Bennett may be a nice guy and may make a fine senator, but I still say Dreamgirls is seriously over-rated.
1.4.2009 11:22pm
Oren:


They're entirely different things. One can disagree without being obnoxious, and a jerk who agrees with you on some issue is still a jerk.

Yes, but sometimes you go against a jerk that you really agree with just to have the satisfaction of denying him something he wants. That's what I want in our Senators.
1.4.2009 11:42pm
Waldensian (mail):

What makes his appointment so surprising is that he is so tremendously ... nice. People like that aren't supposed to get ahead, least of all in politics. ... I also think it is not coincidental that he was appointed, rather than having to run for the office.

Former Virginia governor Gerald Baliles, who was elected, is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. Incredibly intelligent too. I still can't believe he was a successful politician. It's mind-boggling.
1.4.2009 11:50pm
Chris Blanchard (mail) (www):
Oh snap! Can we get back to the issue of the 17th amendment?! You will get more money out of politics than any McCain/Feingold pipe dream would ever hope to do if we would just repeal the 17th Amendment, which was a TERRIBLE injustice to the states.
1.5.2009 12:04pm
PeterWimsey (mail):
I would support the repeal of the 17th Am. if it were coupled with nonpartisan drawing of legislative districts and the repeal of the electoral college (or at least the repeal of a winner-take-all electoral college). Gerrymandered districts and the winner-take-all system mean that we have too little democracy; adding another layer between the people and the decision makers makes little sense to me until we fix these other issues.
1.5.2009 5:03pm

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