Resignation in (personal) protest

When she learned that Dick Cheney was routinely intercepting confidential messages to her from her subordinates, why didn’t she threaten to quit unless the practice was stopped.

I have to disagree with Kevin Drum. I don’t find it even mildly surprising that Dick Cheney was spying on his White House colleagues. Disgusting, yes. Surprising, no. It’s part of his fundamentally totalitarian mind-set.

What I do find surprising is Condoleeza Rice’s passivity in the face of this interference in her communication with her own staff. Anyone with an ounce of self-respect would have gone to Bush and said, “This stops from right now or I’m out the door.”

A threat to resign over a major policy disagreement is dangerous. First, it damages relationships. Using a threat to resign to force an issue to come out your way is about the most un-collegial thing you can do, and even it it works, the folks on the other side of the disagreement &#8212 who won the argument but had to back down in the face of your threat &#8212 are likely to remember, not gratefully. Second, it might not work; maybe the boss values the policy more than he values your services.

But a threat to resign over this sort of official-personal affront is a different story. Precisely because it’s personal to you but not to the others, it’s a fully credible threat, and their threat to stuck to the insult and let you resign isn’t credible. And because it’s personal, letting you get away with it doesn’t mean ceding you the right to block any substantive decision by threatening to resign, so it’s not nearly as much of an affront to your co-workers.

The classic case here is George Schultz, who forced Ronald Reagan to back down from an already-signed Executive Order requiring cabinet officials to submit to polygraph examinations as part of leak investigations by saying he’d walk out rather than take one. Would Bush really have let Rice resign rather than telling Cheney to respect her privacy? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Update A reader points out that Kevin called the story “pathological,” “telling,” and “astonishing,” but not “surprising.” I guess it’s hard to surprise Kevin these days. Astonishment, of course, is something entirely different.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: