WASHINGTON – Rarely is the question asked: Is our Cabinet secretaries learning?
And if we is being honest with ourself, we says: No, they is not.
Today’s lesson: the education of Betsy DeVos.
DeVos, a major Republican donor, was confirmed Tuesday as education secretary when Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic vote to break a tie in the Senate.
Republicans, apparently recognizing the billionaire’s lack of familiarity with the rudiments of education policy, tried to shield DeVos from public view. They scheduled her testimony in the evening and limited questions. But this did not save the heiress from getting schooled.
DeVos was “confused” by questions about the Individuals With Disabilities and Education Act and befuddled when asked about the raging debate about measuring student proficiency vs. growth. DeVos’s solution to protect student aid from waste? Uh, leave it to “the individuals with whom I work.”
But her finest moment was her argument for why we need guns in schools: “to protect from potential grizzlies.”
It was too much to bear.
Two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, said they couldn’t give DeVos a passing grade, making it likely that she would be confirmed Tuesday on a 50-50 tie broken by Vice President Pence. Hour after hour on the Senate floor Monday, Democrats howled about the nominee’s woeful qualifications, and few Republicans countered them.
But Democrats in the long run may thank the majority Republicans for confirming DeVos. In the fight against President Trump’s agenda, the new administration’s incompetence is their friend. Trump’s choice of DeVos signals a dangerous desire to dismantle public schools. It would be more dangerous if he chose somebody who was up to the task.
In this sense, Trump’s Cabinet generally may be a gift to opponents of his agenda. At Housing and Urban Development there will be Ben Carson. Before Carson’s nomination, his friend Armstrong Williams said that the retired neurosurgeon “feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
At the Energy Department is Rick Perry, mocked by Trump himself during the presidential primaries. “He should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate,” Trump said, suggesting that Perry wears glasses “so people think he’s smart.”
Heading the National Security Council is Mike Flynn, reportedly drummed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for poor management. Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador, has no foreign policy experience.
One can already see future Cabinet meetings shaping up in the White House, as Trump goes around the table asking for updates:
DeVos: “Could you come back to me, please?”
Flynn: “Sorry, what?”
No doubt there is some value in nominating people outside the “establishment.” But the value is diminished if your outsiders can’t do the job.
Competence questions arise daily. After years of Republican promises to repeal Obamacare, a secret recording of a meeting of congressional Republicans makes clear that the administration and its allies on Capitol Hill have no such plan. Trump’s travel ban has been hung up in court largely because its legal underpinning is sloppy. Then there’s Trump’s executive order putting political adviser Stephen K. Bannon on the National Security Council; The New York Times reported that Trump signed that order without fully understanding it.
Questions of competent management extend to the most important issues. During confirmation hearings, Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reported that they had only cursory conversations with Trump about Russia. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly acknowledged that he hadn’t discussed immigration policy with Trump. Nominees were at odds with Trump on the Iran nuclear deal, torture, entitlement programs, climate change and the border wall.
Then there’s DeVos. After her rickety performance at her confirmation hearing, she returned a written questionnaire to senators last week – and it was soon apparent that some of her answers were cribbed from a magazine, the Education Department website, and an Obama administration nominee.
On the Senate floor Monday, Democrats planned to speak into the night denouncing DeVos’s abilities.
“Uniquely unqualified,” said Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.).
“Astonishing ignorance,” said Chris Van Hollen (Md.).
“Embarrassingly unprepared,” said Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
After three hours of unanswered charges, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) showed up and gave a lengthy endorsement – of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
McConnell was followed by the No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn (Tex.), offering perfunctory support for DeVos. “The president will get the Cabinet he nominated and deserves,” Cornyn said.
Yes, he will.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.