Monday, February 02, 2009

The Elephant in the Cabinet

I'm a bit mystified by President Obama's pursuit of Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) to fill the Secretary of Commerce post, left open after Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM) was forced to bow out of the confirmation process thanks to that minor nuisance called a federal investigation. The only logical basis for appointing Senator Gregg to head the Commerce Department would be to enable the Democrats to get 60 votes in the Senate. (The reasoning goes as follows: If Senator Gregg were to leave his seat in the Senate, the governor of New Hampshire would get to appoint a person of his own choosing as the replacement Senator. The governor of New Hampshire is a Democrat, so he's more likely to appoint a democrat to replace Gregg. Assuming Al Franken holds off Norm Coleman for the Senate seat in Minnesota, that would give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority of 60 Democrats in the Senate.) Besides the fact that Senator Gregg is likely to insist on being replaced by a Republican in exchange for joining Obama's cabinet, there are a lot of problems with appointing Gregg to the Commerce Department, all of which trump the slim chance of the Democrats snagging that coveted 60th seat.

First and foremost, selecting Gregg to head Commerce sends the message that Obama has no clear platform or agenda for the economy. Bill Richardson and Judd Gregg aren't total polar opposites (Gregg is considered a moderate Republican on social issues), but in the realm of the economy, they're pretty close; Gregg is a fiscal conservative, whereas Bill Richardson is a committed liberal. Lining up Gregg as his second choice behind Richardson's failed nomination to Commerce Secretary seems to send the message that Obama has no comprehensive plan or agenda for dealing with the economy besides surrounding himself with smart people, regardless of their worldview.

Moreover, Gregg's appointment to the Commerce post will lead to his replacement as the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee by Senator Jeff Sessions of Alaska, one of the more conservative senators in the Senate. That poses a problem to Obama's ambitious reform agenda because much of the president's legislative proposals will have to get the green light from the Budget Committe in order to become reality. Having a moderate Republican like Gregg as an ally through the legislative process could prove critical to Obama's hopes of success, especially when the alternative is having someone like Sessions in place doing his best to throw up roadblocks.

While Gregg's appointment clearly adds more credibility to Obama's dogged pursuit of a bipartisan administration, Obama has already proved his bipartisan bona fides by appointing two Republican members to his cabinet (Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood). At this point, the incremental value of a third Republican appointment to his cabinet is negligible at best; Obama would be better off working to get Republican votes in Congress, which he failed to do for his stimulus bill, than more Republicans in his cabinet.

Finally, gubenatorial appointments of senators has generally made a circus of the Democrats and the Democratic process this year. We need look no farther than Governor David Patterson's messy appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand to replace Hillary Clinton in New York, and to former Governor Blagovich's even messier appointment of Ron Burris to replace Barack Obama in Illinois. Chancing another media hullabaloo around New Hamphsire Governor John Lynch's appointment to replace Gregg in the Senate puts the national Democratic party unnecessarily at risk at a time when it should instead be concentrating on solidifying its power base.

Add up all these factors and the conclusion is clear: Judd Gregg should be staying put in the Senate. Obama can fill that empty shelf in his cabinet elsewhere.

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This past weekend marked the second anniversary of a friend's sudden death, Yair Elmaleh. The posting I wrote in the wake of his passing is now the first item to come up when his name is Googled. I can attest from the number of times that the posting has been read, that hundreds, if not thousands, of people have missed Yair in the two years since his death, and that memories of his smile continue to light up the room.

Click here to read about Yair.