WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney bragged in 2012 that he’d received “whole binders full of women’’ who could fill key White House and Cabinet posts.
Now left-leaning Democrats, worried about being shut out of a centrist administration if Hillary Clinton wins in November, are furiously compiling what amount to binders full of liberals for the presumptive nominee’s consideration.
At least superficially, Clinton and liberal allies like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren are making a concerted show of unity now that the Democratic nomination process is effectively over. But the divides between the party’s progressive and centrist wings remain, and activists are preparing for a behind-the-scenes tussle over key economic appointments at the Treasury Department, White House, and elsewhere if Clinton wins in November.
Spearheading the effort is a New York-based liberal think tank called the Roosevelt Institute, whose top economists include a prominent Warren ally. Staff members from the institute have been interviewing hundreds of progressive economists and other professionals who could fill posts throughout a Clinton administration.
“It’s a big undertaking to staff up an entire government,” said Marcus Mrowka, a spokesman for the institute. Eager to avoid seeming presumptive and creating a backlash, the institute is billing its work as an intensive networking effort.
The Roosevelt Institute is a liberal counterweight to the more centrist power bases in Washington like the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution, which are loaded with Clinton loyalists.
Five people familiar with the Roosevelt Institute’s initiative who weren’t authorized to talk about it publicly said the goal is to ensure that a hypothetical Clinton administration has access to a cadre of potential staff — particularly on financial issues — who aren’t closely connected to Wall Street interests.
“It’s not somebody coming up with a list of demands. It’s just getting prepared. It’s about being prepared for success,” said one person familiar with the initiative.
The strategy is also a recognition that Washington is so gridlocked — and likely will remain so after the election even if Clinton wins — that power is shifting from Congress to the executive branch, where the president can act through executive orders and where Cabinet-level departments interpret laws.
Others in the constellation of liberal organizations are putting together opposition-research-style dossiers that detail past positions taken by more centrist Democrats who might be in line for regulatory jobs in a Clinton administration.
That’s so liberal groups would be ready to pounce should a President Clinton try to fill out too many top positions in financial regulatory roles with staff connected to Wall Street.
Some of that work is being done by the Revolving Door Project, an initiative housed in the Center for Economic and Policy Research. It is part of a coalition of groups that is waging a more overt push to lobby around presidential appointments.
“In this environment, appointments really matter,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, who said he’s pushing for political appointees who focus on the public interest. “There are a lot of different progressives that have come to the same conclusion over the last eight years, that focusing exclusively on legislative goals is impractical.”
Warren is a key advocate of this concept. One of her mantras is that “personnel is policy.” It’s a concept she discussed with Clinton back in December 2015, when the two met privately, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
“How would the world be different today if, when the economic crisis hit, Joe Stiglitz had been secretary of the Treasury and Simon Johnson and Robert Reich had been key economic advisers?” Warren asked in her 2015 address to Netroots Nation, citing prominent liberal economists and thinkers. “It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. Personnel is policy.”
This year she reiterated the point in a New York Times op-ed.
“Legislative agendas matter, but voters should also ask which presidential candidates they trust with the extraordinary power to choose who will fight on the front lines to enforce the laws,” Warren wrote.
Indeed, she has waged some of her most significant battles over presidential appointments, including blocking the appointment of Antonio Weiss to a top position in the Treasury Department and helping scuttle efforts by Lawrence Summers to win the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve. (Weiss is now an adviser at Treasury, a spot that didn’t require Senate confirmation.)
Warren’s office wouldn’t discuss whether she’s involved in efforts by liberal groups to identify potential Cabinet and White House officials.
The Roosevelt Institute is home to Stiglitz, a key Warren ally and Nobel Prize-winning economist whom she mentioned in her Netroots speech. Working for him and conducting many of the interviews is Lenore Palladino, a well respected progressive who has been on the payroll at MoveOn.org and Demos, a left-wing group cofounded by Warren’s daughter.
Stiglitz and Palladino declined to be interviewed for this story, said Mrowka, the spokesman for the think tank.
Though it might seem odd to be thinking about who will have top jobs months before the election, many on the left feel they were ignored eight years ago by President Obama’s transition team because they got a late start. They don’t want to see that repeated.
Shortly after the November 2008 election, for example, a short list of treasury secretary possibilities was circulated that included names connected to Wall Street: Summers and Timothy Geithner. Geithner won the job and was criticized from the left for his closeness to big banks and institutions that caused the 2008 economic meltdown.
This time, the left is hoping lists for top jobs will include people with records of putting up hurdles for Wall Street, like Gary Gensler, the former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
He is now the chief financial officer for Clinton’s campaign.
Beginning after their respective nominating conventions, both the Republican and Democratic campaigns are due to receive support for pre-election transition planning from the General Services Administration, including office space and computer equipment.
Roughly $13 million has been set aside for these efforts, with the support split among eligible candidates, said Ashley Nash-Hahn, a spokeswoman for the administration. Additional funds have been earmarked for after the election, when a more robust transition kicks in.
Clinton’s campaign hasn’t named a person to head her transition, said Jesse Ferguson, a campaign spokesman. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump named New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to head his transition team.
“It has been disconcerting that they haven’t found someone to actually run that effort,” said Hauser. Other progressives interviewed shared that view but did not want to be named for fear of offending the Clinton campaign.
Democratic groups on other parts of the ideological spectrum are less concerned about a timeline for a transition.
Clinton, should she win, would be taking control of a federal bureaucracy that’s already staffed with Democrats in key positions. It would be the first time in more than half a century that has happened for Democrats.
“You’re not going though agencies that have been under hostile control,” said Matt Bennett, a spokesman for the centrist Third Way think tank. “The level of urgency is little bit lower.”
Still, he said that many in Washington are beginning to think about their next jobs — and whether they will come with a White House pass.
“It comes up faster than you think,” he said.