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Assessing the Judd Gregg Fallout

Shortly after last fall's election, I analyzed Barack Obama's aims of bipartisanship, the ways he could go about achieving it, and how it could benefit his administration by keeping it from overreaching and governing too far from the left in the eyes of voters.

Three months have passed since that original analysis. President-elect Barack Obama has since become President Obama and most of his Cabinet has been filled. But there have been some obvious stumbles along the way--though not all of which were of his own creation. But in terms of political ramifications as they pertain to bipartisanship, the most important development so far has been the Judd Gregg fiasco.

Senator Gregg, a fiscally conservative and socially moderate senator from New Hampshire, was tapped to be Obama's Secretary of Commerce. At first, this selection appeared to be a masterstroke by Obama because it meant that a Republican senator would be replaced by a Democratic governor who could potentially appoint a Democrat. This is a point I argued three months ago in my original analysis:

"One more benefit of tapping Republicans to serve in Obama's administration is that it could be a backdoor way of increasing Democratic majorities, particularly in the Senate. If Obama tapped [John] McCain to be Secretary of Defense or Secretary of Homeland Security, for example, McCain would have to relinquish his Senate seat. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, would then be responsible for appointing his successor. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith would have been another potential appointee, but he lost his reelection bid to Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley."
Of course, Obama chose Governor Napolitano to serve as Secretary of Homeland Security, thus resulting in Arizona's Secretary of State, a Republican, ascending to the governorship (Arizona does not have a lieutenant governor). Thus, one could argue that Obama was not explicitly trying to increase only fellow Democrats' control over the levers of power. With the selections of Napolitano and Gregg, he was essentially an equal opportunity employer.

Senator Gregg, however, may have created the blueprint for senators of future presidents' opposition parties who are tapped to serve. Rather than just happily relinquishing their seat and signing the dotted line, they may now be more inclined to broker a deal with their state's governors requiring that their replacement be a member of the same party. This would keep the balance of the power in the Senate unchanged and prevent the president's appointee from angering members of his own party.

Senator Gregg also created another blueprint specifically for Republicans. Despite President Obama's high approval ratings, Gregg went against him by stepping down from the Commerce slot. Gregg is most definitely a conservative senator, but he is not cut from the same cloth as someone like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe or South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. Gregg is an ideological conservative, but not a partisan one. If you were to sincerely work with him and arrive at a reasonable compromise, he would be on board. But in the case of an Inhofe or a DeMint, the only way you would get their support is if they wrote the bill themselves and all the other Republicans supported it. Of course, that's not going to happen.

The blueprint Gregg provided Republicans is simple. He showed Republicans how they can oppose a popular president. Citing genuine ideological differences without casting aspersions on Obama or the Democratic majority is far more palatable to voters than phony cries of a lack of partisanship and the same buzzwords of wasteful spending, big government and pork.

This is not to say that Obama got burnt. While this was certainly a distraction, Gregg's Senate career is history, as he will vacate his seat in 2010. An open Senate seat in an increasingly Democratic state should be the top target on the Democrats' wish list next year. Also, because Obama has made good on his promises to increase bipartisanship, voters will likely not blame him for Gregg's withdrawal. Obama tried to court another Republican, but he got stood up at the altar. This gives him cover to appoint a strong liberal to the Commerce post in the future. Republicans won't have a leg to stand on if they criticize the future nominee for being too liberal because they had their chance when one of their own was given the nod.

Washington insiders and political junkies know that the Department of Commerce is in charge of the decennial census. The census matters because congressional redistricting is based on it. If a liberal is in charge of Commerce, there is a greater chance that Democratic constituencies will be overcounted (people of color, urban voters, homeless people, and potentially illegal immigrants). By the same token, if a conservative is in charge, these same constituencies have a better chance of being undercounted. This is why so many Democrats were unpleasantly surprised by the Gregg pick. (There are now rumblings that former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr., a conservative Democrat, is being considered for the position. Should this happen, both Republicans and Democrats should be pleased.)

Of course, average people have no idea who is in charge of the census, so Gregg's withdrawal doesn't mean as much to them. They are more likely to think of Gregg as a Republican who refused Obama's hand or another problematic Obama Cabinet nominee than as a catalyst for debate over control of something that only happens every ten years.

The final verdict is that even though this was both a distraction and an embarrassment, everyone comes out of the Gregg withdrawal ahead. Republicans are just happy to have Gregg back in the Senate and a new tack from which they can oppose the President. And Gregg probably has more power as the 59th, 60th, or 61st Democratic vote in the Senate than he would have had in Obama's Cabinet. New Hampshire Governor John Lynch wins because he shored up his own bipartisan credentials by working out a deal with Gregg to appoint a Republican placeholder. New Hampshire Democrats win because they have an easy Senate pickup next year, assuming former Senator John Sununu doesn't run. Democrats in general win because Obama's next Commerce nominee will probably be more acceptable to them than Gregg was. And Obama benefits by burnishing his trust among voters who will be more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

No Democratic President has had three Republicans in his Cabinet before. Combining this with the fact that Obama is willing to attend town halls where audience members are not screened (unlike President Bush) suggests that 1) Obama sincerely does want to reach out to people who may not agree with him, 2) "change" was not just a campaign slogan, 3) Obama is strong and confident enough to handle public disagreement which results in him looking more like a leader, and 4) his political opponents can have a voice in this administration too.

In the end, the Gregg saga wasn't pretty. But everyone came out ahead.

3 comment(s):

DB said...

I am interested in the rhetoric that will come out when Obama pushes a more liberal nominee. Gregg did Obama a favor imo. I also think Obama should move on past this "bipartisanship" dance he is doing with Republicans. First of all, bipartisanship will not work when a fundamental division exists between Republican and Democrat approaches to them problem.

Secondly, I don't think principle has anything to do with the recent stimulus votes. It is all about politics. Hell, Lindsey Graham just said that he is open to the idea of nationalizing our banks. Kind of a bit more extreme than this stimulus bill that he couldn't support on "principle".

Mark in Austin said...

I think the Gregg withdrawal is worth little as news. No one ever remembers the SecComm.

I think the Prez has already created a more civil tone that will be useful for many issues, especially foreign policy. DB is correct that where the divide is the Grand Canyon, as it will be with card-check, there will be no bipartisanship. But cordiality greases the art of the possible, and more is possible when the climate is polite.

S.W. Anderson said...

In retrospect, Obama should have said no thanks when Gregg came asking for a job. I don't have a problem with Obama appointing a Republican commerce secretary in principle. However, naming someone whose record includes having voted to abolish the Commerce Department looked sloppy and dumb — especially so after the abortive Bill Richardson appointment to that post.

I think the Gregg "blueprint" obliging a Democratic governor to pick a Republican to replace a Republican senator going to the Cabinet is a poor idea. If I was a governor in a situation like that, I would politely but firmly serve notice my choice would be based on who could best serve the people of my state in the Senate. Period.

I'm surprised you see Gregg as being conservative but not especially partisan. Have you checked his voting record? If you find conspicuous bipartisanship in it, you're seeing the sieve as being half full.

It's not like there's a dearth of worthwhile prospects. I think Oprah Winfrey could do the job well, and her confirmation hearing would be must-see TV. Robert Reich is another one I'd like to see get the nod. If it just has to be a Republican, how about former Navy and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen?

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.