"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times

2/15/2009

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.

2/07/2009

The Stimulus and Republican Rhetoric

President Obama is wrangling with Congress over the economic stimulus bill currently being negotiated. In addition to providing new information about Obama's management style, his influence, and his control over congressional Democrats, the debate has also revealed a new power center in the Senate: moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.

After being purged in the 2006 and 2008 elections, there are not many moderate Republican congressmen and senators left. This leaves much more conservative minorities in the House and Senate. The Republican House minority unanimously voted against the first version of the economic stimulus bill, and Senate Democrats are counting on a small handful of Northeastern moderates to get a bill that could receive 60 votes.

In light of the vote in the House and the struggles Democrats are having in the Senate, Republicans are feeling emboldened. Even though they have very little legislative control, they are wielding a disproportionately large influence over the debate and are outmaneuvering the majority Democrats. As a result, support for the stimulus is waning. Political analysts are giving the Republicans credit for their current message.

The Republican economic argument is simple: The solution to the struggling economy is more tax cuts. Voters have heard these arguments before. By putting more money in people's paychecks because of lower tax rates, they could put that money back in the economy by spending it as they see fit. After all, they know how to spend their money better than big government does.

There are several problems with this argument, however.

1. A tax cut is useless to a person without a job. Given the rising unemployment rate, Republicans risk looking out of touch the more they push the tax cut issue. If you just got laid off, a tax cut will not put more money in your pocket at all. Republicans may argue that corporate tax cuts would allow them to hire more workers. However, when these companies were given billions of dollars of bailout money last fall, they did not hire more workers. They wasted the money on acquisitions, bonuses, and luxuries that turned out to be public relations disasters. Why would companies be more responsible taking advantage of a tax cut than they were with a gift from the taxpayers?

2. A company has no reason to hire more workers if demand is down. This dovetails from the point mentioned earlier. Republicans emphasize personal responsibility. It would seem that a responsible company would not increase their expenses at a time when their revenues are down. A responsible company would probably use any extra money to pay off debts or save it to cover expenses in the event of an emergency. Unlike former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's claims of laziness, people want to work. But companies have to have a reason to hire them.

3. Even though the argument sounds good, voters rejected it last fall. It is hard to argue with "putting more money in people's pockets." (From a public relations standpoint, the Democrats have a much harder case to make in terms of defending giving tax money to people who don't pay any income taxes.) However, Republicans up and down the ballot ran on the same argument and lost big for the second straight election. Voters are well aware of the Republican arguments concerning the economy, and they concluded in 2008 that they want new solutions. President Obama is not shutting Republicans out of the debate because they're Republicans; he's shutting out their ideas because tax cuts alone are not what the public wants.

Republicans are running on two issues right now: tax cuts and wasteful spending. It is true that support for the economic bill is waning. However, because of the three arguments listed above, Republicans have to be careful not to misinterpret their support. The tax cut argument probably doesn't play beyond the Republican base. Taxes will always be too high for them. Running against wasteful spending seems to be a much more potent issue for them. The Republicans' argument is definitely resonating with the public. The problem is, they are running the risk of stressing the wrong one. Voters might not be in lockstep with congressional Democrats or President Obama, but they do want "change." More tax cuts is not "change."

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.