Filtering out the best

Thomas Sowell

2/9/2005 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

Having lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and a majority of the governorships and state legislatures, the Democrats are in an ugly and desperate mood, lashing out without regard to how their words and actions will affect this country's position internationally, including giving aid and comfort to our enemies.

 This may help explain, but it cannot condone, the obstructionism behind such things as the Democrats' holding up the official electoral college vote count on President Bush's re-election or the harassment of Condoleezza Rice during her confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State.

 This is more than a passing mood among bitter sore losers. For a whole generation now, and especially since the orchestrated smear campaign against the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987, Senate confirmation hearings have often had an ugly Roman circus atmosphere whenever a nominee was someone that special interests feared or hated.

 At some point, either this administration or some future administration needs to put the brakes on this kind of behavior because many people with achievements and dignity will not agree to become nominees if that means being dragged through the mud by irresponsible politicians on national television.

 One way to stop this would be to nominate someone whose qualifications and integrity are widely respected -- someone who might ordinarily win confirmation by a vote of 90 to 10 -- and send just his or her record to the Senate, asking for an up or down vote, without the nominee being present.

 No doubt the Senate prima donnas would be outraged and the demagogues would protest loudly. That would be the time for the President, whoever that might be at the time, to go to the public and explain the reason for the decision to proceed in this way.

 Of course such a procedure would affect the vote. But, if the nominee is confirmed by 60 to 40, this is just as good as being confirmed 90 to 10. And that would set a precedent.

 Naturally, it will matter when a test like this is made, what kind of nominee is available, and whether the leader of the Senate majority can count on enough votes to confirm. It matters because filters matter.

 The kind of process through which individuals are filtered changes the mix of people who emerge on the other side, whether that process is Senate confirmation or any of the other processes through which people must pass to reach a coveted position.

 The consistently low academic quality of the people who go into teaching in our public schools -- as shown by innumerable studies going back more than half a century -- is an almost inevitable consequence of filtering them through schools of education, whose ridiculous teacher training courses would repel virtually any intelligent person.

 Some dedicated people with intelligence may suffer through ed school in order to teach, but many others will decide that they have better things to do than listen to the pretentious garbage presented to students under the guise of teacher training.

 Whether in the corporate world or in the military, as politics and public relations become an increasing part of the job of people at the top, that filter can eliminate individuals whose only real talent is that they can get the job done right, even if they are not smooth on television or glib at conferences.

 Who knows how the great industrial entrepreneurs of the 19th century would have come across on TV? But all they had to do was deliver a good product at a low price. Today, they might be replaced by someone more photogenic or charismatic  -- even if the consumers ended up paying more or getting less.

 In the military, the difference between a mediocre general and a great general can be not only the difference between victory and defeat but also the difference between life and death for the troops under his command. Could a MacArthur or a Patton rise to the same level of command today? And how many more soldiers will lose their lives if they can't?

 Filters matter. The Senate should not become a filter like schools of education that filter out good people.