Whenever someone promises two for the price of one, the savvy consumer is naturally suspicious. Should the same suspicion not extend to the newest transmogrification of the Washington “power couple”? It is, after all, just the latest evolution of the shell game hucksters once played on street corners.
As more than 5,000 Maine lobster-fishing families prepare for the coming holidays with existential worry, The Maine Wire this week highlighted perhaps the apex predator of DC power couples: White House Chief-of-Staff Ron Klain and spouse Monica Medina, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, who has been a driving force in the campaign to eradicate lobster-fishing.
Medina has a long record of advocacy for the right whale, which on its own is a fine thing. After all, we humans shouldn’t be causing the extinction of other species simply on account of our “privilege.”
But when you marry that concern to an almost supreme source of unelected and largely unaccountable power, the possibilities for abuse multiply. Right now, the federal government seems hell-bent on regulating lobster-fishing out of existence ostensibly because of unfounded claims that it further endangers the whales. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Facts rarely get in the way of determined federal bureaucrats.
Power couples are nothing new. According to the archetype, one spouse is active in governance while the other dazzles with charm and grace, making the two force multipliers of one another. But around 1993, something changed. When the American people elected Bill Clinton president, we got the extra bonus of his wife, Hillary, who did not – as she proudly declared – “bake cookies,” but rather went immediately to work trying to foist a single-payer health care system on the country. At the time, some chafed, and ultimately Hillary-care failed.
More recently, spouses have stepped forward when the partner whose name is on the ballot faltered. In Pennsylvania last month, the left-of-center media foisted laurels on the comely Gisele Fetterman when her husband, now Senator-elect John Fetterman, sputtered on the stump. And since 2020, we’ve all seen an awful lot of Jill Biden who – provided she is not talking about Mexican cuisine – is usually sharper on her feet than her husband. But in even in these cases, at least one spouse has an elected mandate.
The same cannot be said for the more insidious, and less accountable power couples of the moment. Let’s take the Ohr couple for instance. Bruce is a career prosecutor in the upper echelon of the Justice Department’s criminal division. His wife Nellie is a researcher for Fusion GPS, the Democrat opposition research firm that concocted much of the now debunked Russia-gate scandal in 2017. Could she have improperly influenced what became a hyper-partisan investigation that shook the country to its core in recent years? Absolutely.
How many other couples are there like the Ohrs?
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has been the subject of scrutiny because of his role in whipping up the same Russia story in 2016, peddling false claims to journalists. His wife, Maggie Goodlander, now sits in the Justice Department where she can effectively block and tackle any serious review of her husband’s behavior. The cases are legion: young, ambitious couples who come to Washington to divide and conquer. And almost none of these people are elected.
The sheer coziness of these arrangements often raises questions even before impropriety surfaces. We, the simple American people, cannot know who these superlative governors are because they simply come and go with the tide, have bland faces and unrecognizable names. The more infirm their principals – like Senator-elect Fetterman and President Biden – may be, the more powerful, and less accountable, these spouses become. But at least in the cases of Fetterman and Biden, someone got elected.
No one elected Ron Klain, and almost no one could pick him out of a lineup. (Hint: He looks a little bit like a baby right whale.) But like Cardinal Richelieu on steroids, he is immensely powerful, perhaps more so than any of his predecessors in modern history. Sure, Washington insiders may titter about his moods and priorities, but he and Dr. Medina are protected from prying eyes by the grey curtain of bureaucratic prerogative. Beneath them feeds an ecosystem of smaller, equally anonymous power couples making decisions every day that will bear on the rest of us whether we see it happening or not.
Our only hope for representation in such a scheme lies with those we have sent to Congress to champion and protect our interests. In this season of holiday parties, when Senators Collins and King and Congresswoman Pingree and Congressman Golden rub shoulders with these faceless guardians of the galaxy, let us hope they’ll put in a word for the hardworking lobstermen and women of Maine. If our iconic fishery is regulated out of existence, at least we will know squarely whom to blame.
With all the heady talk about saving our imperiled democracy in recent months, there is little that could be more democratic than freeing our country from the sweaty and tightening grip of unelected power couples.