One of the most popular videos shared on Facebook last week was of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) “schooling,” “grilling,” or “snubbing” Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. During a contentious three-hour hearing, the senator took the opportunity to display her classless charm by asking reductionist questions and interrupting DeVos in her attempts to answer them.
Betsy DeVos, a businesswoman and philanthropist, is the child of self-made billionaires Edgar and Elsa Prince. Her business history includes seats on the boards of educational advocacy organizations, which focus on improving access to charter schools in underprivileged areas like Detroit. Former senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, has lauded her as a “champion of at-risk children.”
Senator Warren’s grandstanding and value-signaling performance at DeVos’s confirmation hearing was unnecessary and unproductive. She began by asking about DeVos’s background in higher education and how she will navigate the current student loan dilemma. The senator’s questions, however, had nothing to do with the nominee’s experience with issues in higher education, only her personal experience in paying for it. Warren peppered DeVos with yes-or-no questions like: “Have you ever taken out a student loan from the federal government to help pay for college?”
She went on to ask if DeVos’s children had to take out loans. The answer to both questions was no, but DeVos added that her children are “fortunate” in not having to do this. As Senator Warren continued with these privilege-checking questions, she interrupted DeVos’s attempt to explain her (admittedly distant) personal experience with receiving federal Pell Grants. This general yes-or-no line of questioning showed more about Warren’s character than DeVos’s experience.
Senator Warren also got into the issue of fraud in higher education. She opened this part of the questioning with a knock or two against President Trump – using a previous comment by DeVos. Early in the primary season, DeVos donated millions to Carly Fiorina before ultimately supporting Marco Rubio. During the primary season, she also called candidate Trump an “interloper” who “does not represent the Republican Party.”
After this gratuitous aside, Senator Warren pushed DeVos to promise to directly hold for-profit colleges and universities accountable for providing students a sufficient education. DeVos clearly explained that she will have the Department of Education enforce proper rules and regulations for educational standards and government oversight, but Warren accused her of planning to “subcontract” such responsibilities in her position as Secretary of Education.
This subcontracting or delegation really is not a problem at all. It is indicative of the approach of a good businesswoman, and the likely approach of President Trump’s cabinet as a whole. Capable CEOs do not involve themselves in every detail of their companies. They delegate, or hire, qualified experts to inform them of the details of most issues. With this information, the CEO makes an informed decision about how to steer the company or department. President Trump may be incompetent, unprepared, and often unintelligible, but he is surrounding himself with an intelligent, skilled, and economically savvy cabinet. His nominees are generally outsiders to Republican politics, and in some cases even dissenters from it. There are also major Trump appointees who disagree with him on certain important issues. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for instance, disagrees with President Trump on the Iran nuclear deal and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson dislikes Trump’s previous calls for a ban on Muslim immigrants. These are the kind of people who will effect change in this or any presidency – those who are willing to put aside personal differences, while also standing by their own views and values, to set productive policy.
One name missing from the social media outcry following the confirmation hearing is that of Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH). Senator Hassan also had the opportunity to pepper Betsy DeVos with questions, in this case about her experience with students with disabilities. Unlike Warren, Senator Hassan was clear and respectful – allowing DeVos to complete her answers – and managed to extract some meaningful information. She helped reveal to the committee that DeVos is wholly unfamiliar with a number of federal statutes related to the situation, and potential problem, of students with disabilities signing away certain rights when they enter charter schools. She did not interrupt DeVos, but asked open-ended questions and allowed her to tie herself into a knot attempting to explain her position on the issue.
This is how it should be done. This is how you resist a cabinet nominee seems somewhat undereducated about public school systems. This is how you resist a president who may threaten the rights you believe in. You don’t get nasty and rude. You use patient cunning to allow unqualified nominees to embarrass themselves.