Turnover at DEA

Asa Hutchinson will be leaving his post as Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration to take a third-level job with the new Homeland Defense Agency. Hard to figure what this means.

I met Hutchinson last year. Good-looking, smooth, articulate, friendly, inquisitive, and ambitious. An excellent explainer — potentially in the Clinton class — though without Clinton’s impulse to actually understand what he was taking about. His knowledge of drug policy was strictly at the campaign-speech level, but I watched him utterly captivate a group of University of California students who were mostly about as far as you could get from him on the issues. No resemblance at all to the image the phrase “graduate of Bob Jones University” calls to mind in a bicoastal elitist like me. Watch that space: he could be President someday, especially since his brother’s defeat means that he has a clean shot at a Senate seat six years from now.

The DEA job was Hutchinson’s reward for his work as one of the “managers” of the Clinton impeachment; he gave up a safe House seat to take it. As DEA Administrator, he’s done nothing in particular, but that’s about par for the course. He’s gotten some ink, though mostly on issues such as medical marijuana and assisted suicide, which may not be political winners. Why the move?

One possibility is that Hutchinson has decided that the drug war in general isn’t a career-builder, or that a year and change fighting it has punched that ticket and it’s time to get his terrorism ticket punched.

Then, too, there’s a buzz that Mitch Daniels is about to take the budget axe to the drug-fighting effort. Maybe Hutchinson decided that presiding over a cutback wouldn’t be any fun.

The other possibility is that Hutchinson is being moved aside for someone who really wants the job. Rudi Giuiliani, maybe? If not — if Bush puts someone low-profile at DEA — that will be a strong signal that he’s de-emphasizing the drug issue. (The only news story that even bothered to speculate mentioned the possibility of promoting the career No. 2 guy, which would be a first; DEA has always gotten its bosses from outside.) The Walters appointment already hinted at such a de-emphasis.

While I naturally have lots of activist ideas about drug policy — that’s what I do for a living, after all — I agree with my friend Peter Reuter (who spoke gratefully about the 2000 Presidential race as the first “drug-free campaign” since 1976) that in general the issue could benefit from a good leaving-alone by elected officials and candidates. Since they’re not allowed to say anything true, it’s probably better for them to say nothing.