Slow learners at 1600 Penn.

The Mayberry Machiavellis can’t get it through their thick skulls that times have changed, and there’s stuff they just can’t get away with anymore.

The Bush (mal)Administration continues to demonstrate that it is an organizational slow learner. The President and his evil counsellors have yet to figure out that they can no longer get away with the kind of stuff they got away with under six years of a lapdog Republican Congress. With a new sheriff in town, and a stinging election defeat and historic low popularity adding to the usual weakness of a lame duck Presidency, they need to pull in their horns. But they seem to be unable to figure that out.

For example, putting a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers in charge of the Consumer Product Safety Commission would have been routine in the Bushies’ Six Fat Years. And having him take a payoff from his ex-employer on the way out the door, after the fashion of Dick Cheney, would have been no more than natural. The nomination would have sailed through the Senate.

But not anymore. The nominee, facing the prospect of having to answer questions about the sweetheart severance package and of almost certain defeat, just withdrew.

This sort of failure to learn &#8212 also exemplified by the Pearl Harbor Day Massacre of the U.S. Attorneys and the subsequent lying to Congress &#8212 is characteristic of both people and organizations in the aftermath of a long run of success. The Mayberry Machiavellis could have taken a warning from the original:

A prince may be seen happy to-day and ruined to-morrow without having shown any change of disposition or character … he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful … if times and affairs change, he is ruined if he does not change his course of action. But a man is not often found sufficiently circumspect to know how to accommodate himself to the change, both because he cannot deviate from what nature inclines him to, and also because, having always prospered by acting in one way, he cannot be persuaded that it is well to leave it.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com