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‘Fire’ Betsy DeVos? Democrats Turn Cabinet Turnover Into Campaign Attack

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 09, 2020 4 min read
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Democrats don’t like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. There’s not much nuance you need to know about that. But a few Democratic candidates for president, and one of the groups most strongly opposed to DeVos, are putting an interesting twist on their attacks on one of Trump’s longest-serving, most-divisive cabinet members.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has been relatively aggressive about using this strategy recently. During a CNN town hall Thursday, she pledged to “fire” DeVos within 100 seconds of being inaugurated (receiving a hearty round of applause), and her campaign reiterated it the same evening on social media. In a previous campaign ad released last month about the first 100 days of her presidency, Klobuchar pledged to do fire DeVos, among other things.

(Interestingly, if you look at Klobuchar’s plan for her first 100 days that she released in June, firing Betsy DeVos isn’t explicitly mentioned. Klobuchar does, however, promise to treat education civil rights quite and other issues very differently from DeVos.)

Klobuchar isn’t the only one to take this approach, however. Jill Biden, the wife of former Vice President Joe Biden, promised that her husband’s administration would “get rid of” DeVos during a Monday interview on MSNBC. Joe Biden is fond of saying four years of DeVos is enough and that students and educators deserve better. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said several months ago that she’d replace DeVos. And before he dropped out of the race, former congressman Beto O’Rourke stressed the necessity of replacing DeVos.

If a Democrat wins the presidency this year, he or she is going to pick a new cabinet. That’s what new presidents do and it’s what’s expected of them. A promise to “fire” DeVos or any cabinet secretary seems like a redundancy, particularly when bipartisan cooperation and goodwill is at a very low ebb.

By the same token, there isn’t any discernable reason DeVos would want to work for a Democratic administration in 2021 that would seek to cultivate teachers’ unions and other advocates for traditional public schools that have opposed DeVos since she became education secretary, if not longer. There’s no reason to think DeVos would want to survive any Democratic clear-out of the White House. And even if Trump is re-elected, cabinet positions often turn over in a president’s second term; DeVos herself hasn’t made it clear if she would stay on as secretary beyond Trump’s first term.

Still, such rhetoric does remind Democratic voters how the respective candidates would move sharply away from Trump’s agenda. And a poll released Friday by Yahoo showed that among nine prominent Trump administration officials, DeVos got the highest disapproval rating. That’s consistent with previous polling about DeVos.

A Biden campaign official we spoke with said the former vice president’s team is particularly keen to contrast Jill Biden’s career as an educator, Joe Biden’s experience, and their support for public education with DeVos’ support for private schools and lack of background working in public schools.

Warren’s campaign, meanwhile, pointed out that the senator has consistently opposed the education secretary since DeVos’ 2017 confirmation hearing, well before the 2020 campaign. The campaign cited Warren’s creation on her official Senate page of “DeVos Watch” (a site criticizing the secretary’s actions), as well as Warren’s belief that who gets appointed to government positions is an important reflection of policy priorities.

DeVos and ‘Harsh Rhetoric’

William Howell, a professor of politics at the University of Chicago who studies education, cautioned that despite the negative approval ratings and attention she gets in some quarters, DeVos is still not generally well-known among the general public. However, he added, “Within the context of a primary, people who are politically attentive and are liberal don’t think highly of her. This is a way to signal what [Democratic candidates’] domestic policy priorities are, with this harsh rhetoric.”

DeVos’ has campaigned for Trump’s reelection bid in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; in Howell’s view, such events are routine for cabinet secretaries, regardless of how much the opposing party might deride them.

What about other factors that conceivably go into the Democrats’ broadsides against her? It’s hard to know if these sorts of attacks are rooted in the fact that DeVos is a high-profile woman in politics, Howell noted. But he also said it’s pretty clear in general that women in such positions are “more likely called out for their perceived inexperienced or perceived blunders than are men.”

Democrats’ strategy regarding DeVos appears unusual if not unique when it comes to Trump’s cabinet secretaries. Search for calls to fire DeVos and your screen will fill up quickly; do the same for calls to fire Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (no stranger to controversial headlines these days), or Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and you’ll get very different results.

The National Education Association, one of DeVos’ biggest critics, is urging people to take the pledge to help “fire Betsy DeVos.” The teachers’ union told us it kicked off that particular campaign earlier this week; it posted the pledge on its Facebook page on Tuesday. For context, that was after Jill Biden’s remarks on TV but before Klobuchar’s CNN town hall promise and social media post.

As we’ve noted before, DeVos has taken on unusual prominence in the Democratic primary for some time. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has even run fundraising ads naming her directly, a fact we asked him about last year.

Democrats used DeVos as a boogeywoman in the 2018 midterm elections.

Photo: President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with his pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2016. (Paul Sancya/AP)

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