Ever since I was a teenager I thought it would be a good idea for presidents to stop selling ambassadorships-- and that was a lot of decades ago. But this week the NY Times' Michelle Cottle brought it up again: Stop Letting Rich People Buy Ambassadorships. She framed it as a way for Biden to score some points... albeit not with the donor class whose ass his head has been up since at least the 1970s. Get over it; Biden has not intention of being a reformer; not gonna happen. We'll be lucky if he does the things he'd promise he'd do during the campaign... very lucky-- and I'd be surprised if he does much of that.
"Paying off donors with ritzy, taxpayer-funded tours in exotic locales," she wrote, "is one of those forms of soft corruption that give Washington its swampy funk." Not that soft, dear. "The transaction has a dark logic," she continued. "Presidential campaigns need money. Lots of it. And what grander way for grateful presidents to say 'thank you' than by dispatching their benefactors to host fancy parties and otherwise play at diplomacy for a few years in Paris or London or Nassau?" I'm sure its just great for the morale of the career diplomats who work for years, even decades for good postings to see some corrupt bozo march in and make a laughing stock of the country in a job he or she is patently unqualified for.
Biden will never change that. The Senate should though. All it would take were a couple of reform-minded Democrats to work with the Republicans-- who are opposing all of Biden's appointments anyway.
The United States is an outlier in assigning ambassadorships in this fashion. “This practice is aberrational among advanced democracies and a source of recurrent controversy in the United States,” observed Ryan Scoville, an associate law professor at Marquette University in his study of such appointments, published in 2019.
Think of it as a kind of American exceptionalism.
This is far from a new disgrace. Presidents of both parties have embraced this form of donor maintenance for decades, some more systematically than others. Richard Nixon, while chatting with his chief of staff in the summer of 1971, suggested a hard floor of $250,000 for “anybody who wants to be an ambassador.”
Now and again, Congress has taken a run at reform. Jimmy Carter, bless his heart, promised a merit-based process. But by and large, most everyone has been content to let the pay-to-play continue.
Donald Trump, ever the master graftsman, supercharged the practice. Since the 1950s, presidents have handed out roughly 30 percent of ambassadorships to political appointees, the bulk of which tended to be donors. (Mr. Carter did have the lowest level, at 24 percent.) Mr. Trump pushed that number north of 40 percent in his first two years-- the highest percentage of noncareer appointments since the presidency of F.D.R.
Some of Mr. Trump’s more colorful picks seemed set on confirming the caricature of the ugly American. His ambassador to Iceland, Jeffrey Ross Gunter, a dermatologist by trade, upset the locals by promoting a Trump tweet ranting about “the China virus.” Even more controversial was Mr. Gunter’s request for special permission to carry a gun and his advertisement for armed bodyguards. (Iceland takes pride in its status as the world’s most peaceful nation.)
Woody Johnson, the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and Mr. Trump’s man in London, faced accusations of inappropriate behavior, including making racist and sexist comments. (Mr. Johnson denied the claims.) He also (unsuccessfully) sought the British government’s help in arranging for the British Open golf tournament to take place at Mr. Trump’s Scottish resort.
Perhaps most memorable was Gordon Sondland, the hotelier whose $1 million contribution to the Trump inaugural committee helped land him the position of ambassador to the European Union. From there, he managed to get so entangled in Mr. Trump’s Ukraine shenanigans that he wound up a central figure in the president’s first impeachment trial.
Cottle wants Biden to "uncouple fat donations from ambassadorships to the greatest extent possible. And he should not bother being subtle. If the president is going to tick off some of his more entitled patrons, he might as well get credit for it from the millions of nonrich Americans who sent him to Washington to look after their interests." She insists that Biden was "elected to restore honor and decency and competence to the White House and to the government more broadly. Dismantling the donor-to-ambassador pipeline would be a quick step in that direction." Not one many people would notice-- except rich donors.
However, as much as I'm opposed to the practice-- even though one presidential candidate's campaign manager literally once asked me which country I would like a posting to; he didn't win the nomination-- there is an exception I would've to see: a crooked San Francisco businessman with no ethics at all, 85 year old Richard Blum. Recognize the name? He's Mr. Dianne Feinstein and, short of McConnell and his beard, there has hardly been a more corrupt couple of Capitol Hill than Blum and DiFi. I have no idea if he's as senile as she is but Biden should give her the job if she pledges to resign from the Senate-- a job she is no longer even remotely capable of doing-- and agrees to accompany him.
Blum, according to The Times, is lobbying for the job, in a European capital. He's poured millions of dollars into Democratic political campaigns. These are his 5 biggest-- but he's written at least 582 checks to federal campaigns.
Biden, according to White House aides, is open to appointing Mr. Blum to an ambassadorship, which is among the most coveted positions in any administration. After prioritizing the appointments of their West Wing staff and the cabinet, the president and his top advisers have only recently started considering whom to dispatch overseas.
One potential ambassador, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said Biden himself wants to pore over the list of potential appointees and does not feel rushed.
There is, however, rising impatience among the would-be envoys. Former senators, including some who served in the Senate with Biden, are particularly eager to gain some clarity and have taken note of how few in their ranks have joined the administration to date, according to one prominent Democrat who has spoken to them.
The president, himself a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is attempting a delicate balancing act: rewarding loyal donors and former colleagues without flooding the diplomatic corps with political appointees, as some of his associates thought Trump had done.
Former senators who could be named as ambassadors include Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who backed Biden; Joe Donnelly of Indiana; Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota; Ken Salazar of Colorado; and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.
It’s not just former members of Congress looking for positions. A handful of current lawmakers are still hoping to join the administration but are waiting because of Biden’s own deliberations and the Democrats’ narrow majorities. For example, Representative Dina Titus of Nevada, an early Biden supporter, is hoping for an ambassadorship, but there are currently three Democratic vacancies in the House, where the party holds a slim majority.
Blum’s desire for an ambassadorship could prove consequential, though. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, facing an increasingly likely recall threat and eager to energize his party’s base, pledged in an interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Monday night that he would appoint a Black woman to replace Feinstein. He acknowledged he had “multiple names in mind” for a vacancy that does not exist.