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McCain's Presidential Transition Gaffe

The question is not why Obama has made the decision to launch a transition planning operation, but why Sen. John McCain has not. McCain assumes the presidential appointments process will somehow bend to his will.
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There are many things about Sen. Barack Obama's campaign that seem presumptuous, not the least of which is his seal of office. But yesterday's announcement that he will soon launch a transition planning operation is not one of them.

The question is not why Obama made the decision, but why Sen. John McCain has not. Instead attacking the Obama campaign for "dancing in the end zone," McCain should have appointed his own planning team long ago.

Obama has plenty of historical precedent to draw upon. On the Republican side of the aisle, Ronald Reagan began his 1980 planning effort in early spring under a senior confidant. The planning produced the fastest transition to governing in modern history, which translated directly into Reagan's victories on budget and tax cuts only six months into the term.

George W. Bush also began his planning early, which produced a remarkably disciplined transition that laid set the stage for another round of tax cuts. It is hard to imagine how the transition could have succeeded without it. Given the Florida impasse, it is hard to imagine how the Bush transition could have succeeded without the pre-election planning.

On the Democratic side, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also began their planning early, but waffled when it came time to use the plans. Under intense pressure from their campaign staffs who rightly complained about a lack of consultation, both decided to start planning again all over again the morning after the election.

With no playbook to work from, Carter and Clinton quickly over-spent their political capital, Clinton was particularly hard hit by transition infighting, which produced the fitful search for an Attorney General, which in turn laid the foundation for the health care debacle and the Republican sweep to power in the 1994 election.

Whereas Obama seems to have learned the importance of at least some pre-election planning, McCain has missed it. Having questioned Obama's fitness for office, one can understand McCain's pique at any sign that his opponent might be serious about getting ready for Day One. But Obama cannot hit the ground running if he does not know where he is going.

McCain seems to assume, for example, that the presidential appointments process will somehow bend to his will. Having watched it all these years, he should know better. The process is nasty, brutal, but not at all short.

Nominees are battered by 60 pages of forms that contain questions that cover every conceivable embarrassment and more. Nominees must list every school they have attended and give the name of a chum who will vouch safe for them. They must also list every job they have held, addresses and phone numbers of past and current neighbors, the birthdays and birthplaces of their parents and in-laws, and every international trip they have taken, including short visits to Canada and Mexico.

The process is hardly over once they submit their forms. The FBI must vet their answers, the Office of Government Ethics and each department and agency ethics office must certify their financial disclosure filings, the White House must make a formal nomination, and the Senate must act. Given the inevitable delays and detours along the way, the next president will be lucky to have his team in place by mid-2009. In a first-come-first-served process that can only handle so many candidates at a time, the president-elect better know just who comes first.

McCain also seems to believe that his legislative priorities will be easily sold. But he is neglecting the need for fast action on a host of household chores. He will almost certainly want to submit revisions to the final Bush budget as part of his broad attack on congressional earmarks. He will also want to develop an executive order or two for early release. Even after his truncated transition, George W. Bush was able to launch his faith-based initiative only eight days after Inauguration Day. McCain will even need to pick a White House computer system, a rather daunting task for someone who has only just discovered "a Google."

Obama's greatest challenge now is to find a leader for his planning effort. Although he may be tempted to appoint a Clinton's staffer, academic, or think tank president, he cannot forget the Carter and Clinton experience. The last thing he will need on November 5th is a battle for supremacy between the transition and campaign staffs.

The best compromise may be former South Dakota Majority Leader Tom Daschle. He is not only intensely loyal to Obama, but has the throw-weight to command respect after the election is over. Transition planning is not a plumb to be awarded to a political technocrat.

McCain's greatest challenge is obviously different. He must find a way to back out of his ill-advised attack on transition planning. He cannot wait until November 4th to start thinking of November 5th. Doing so not only endangers his administration, but the country as a whole.

The decision not to plan for the transition is not just presumptuous on McCain's part, it is irresponsible. The next president faces a huge agenda of national problems that must be addressed as soon as possible. Instead of criticizing Obama for planning, McCain should congratulate him for taking an essential step toward governing. If anyone should have moved first, it should have been McCain. He is the one with the long resume after all.

Paul C. Light is the author of A Government Ill Executed. He is not affiliated with any campaign.