Sunday, April 26, 2015

Back in his comfortable corner

Judd Gregg says "never mind"

Back in his comfortable corner

Pop quiz, and no fair Googling for the answer: Who is Carlos Gutierrez?

The baseball infielder who lied to Congress about his steroid use? Nope. The financier who just loaned a big chunk of money to The New York Times? Nope. The stumpy Hispanic guy who wanted to be a porn star in Boogie Nights? Nope.

Correct answer: Carlos Gutierrez, until three weeks ago, was the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Get my point? Whatever it was that the Commerce secretary did on the job, he was never a threat to replace Marley the dog as a national household name...wait, let me amend that. In your immediate neighborhood, your own dog was probably a bigger household name. 

My broader point is that, for all the fuss about Republican Judd Gregg's Thursday abdication of the job that he didn't yet have, so that he can keep the Senate seat that he had previously sought to abdicate, it doesn't really matter a whole lot who runs the Commerce Department. It has long been a second-tier outpost; as a power center, it peaked roughly 85 years ago, when Herbert Hoover ran the place.

On paper, the department is supposedly ground zero for the crucial issue of international trade, but that turf has long been ceded to the Treasury Department, to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and, at presidential whim, to various White House special advisers. The department's official mission - "to foster, promote, and develop the foreign and domestic commerce" - is vague enough to allow any president to expand or contract its clout as he sees fit. 

Having said that, Gregg's U-turn does have symbolic importance; once again, Republicans have demonstrated that President Obama's outreach mission is a waste of time.

Just 10 days ago, when Gregg agreed to take the Commerce job, he publicly declared that "this is not the time for partisanship. This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners...I look forward to (the job) with enthusiasm." But the usual ideological forces in Washington ultimately cornered him.

The U.S Census Bureau, for whatever reason, falls under Commerce jurisdiction. The census has been an ideological battle zone for years; in essence, liberals fear that urban minorities will be under-counted, while conservatives fear that these minorities will be over-counted. There have long been pitched battles over counting methodology, and bureau funding. Gregg, when he was chairman of the committee that held the Commerce purse strings, frequently tried to cut the bureau's budget. So when he was tapped by Obama to run Commerce, liberals complained; and when the Obama team tried to mollify liberals by promising that the Census director would bypass Gregg and report directly to the White House, conservatives complained.

It was also clear that Gregg was taking heat from his own partisans - for selling them out, for selling out his own principles, for being a dupe. There were grumblings on the right that Gregg, as a 2004 Senate candidate, had taken a lot of money from Republican donors, and that those donors did not write checks with the expectation that Gregg would jump ship to the enemy two-thirds of the way through his term. In the recent words of conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin, "At the very least, shouldn't Gregg give back 1/3 of the money?...(His defection to Obama) is at bottom a rather selfish act, no doubt meant to avoid the embarrassment of losing his seat in 2010 and to put a feather in his cap at the tail end of his political career."

It's puzzling that Gregg, a seasoned Washington player, did not foresee these political complications at the time he declared himself to be enthusiastic about the Commerce job. Had he somehow convinced himself that his principled adherence to the failed tax-cut shibboleths of the Bush era would not collide with the Obama team's emphasis on stimulus spending? All Gregg says now is, "The fault lies with me. I may have embarrassed myself, but hopefully not (Obama)."

He's right; he was for the job before he was against it, and he comes off looking bad. But of course he has embarrassed Obama, for which the Republicans are surely grateful. The partisan stars are once more in natural alignment. Obama will be well advised to simply find a qualified Democrat, presumably one who has paid his or her taxes, install the person at Commerce, and allow that department to return to its relative obscurity.

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Among the willfully ignorant, it has been a major source of complaint that President Obama conducted his first press conference by calling on reporters who were pre-selected. It is fascinating how these complainants have so thoroughly erased the Bush administration from their memory.

One such amnesiac, not surprisingly, was Bill O'Reilly. But check out what happened on his show Tuesday night, when he spoke with former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer.

O'Reilly: "Look, (Obama) had those guys written down, who he was going to call on. Now, in other press conferences, they'd just look around and go: 'This one, that one, this one.' Correct?"

Fleischer: "Well, George Bush never did that...Writing it down gives the president more control."

O’Reilly (caught with his pants down):
"OK, so George Bush came in with a list of guys he was going to call on?"

Fleischer:
"Yes, I used to prepare it for him."

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Elsewhere on the press front, we have the audacity of hypocrisy.

David Plouffe, a key architect of Obama's presidential campaign - you know, the one that talked so much about "transparency" - appeared yesterday at the National Press Club to deliver a keynote address and remark upon the '08 race. The National Press Club, which hosted the "Transition 2009" conference on its turf, is dedicated to the free flow of information.

Yet Plouffe decreed that all his remarks were off the record. Reporters had to wait outside the room and ask the conference participants to recount his remarks after the fact.

Plouffe doesn't work for the Obama White House, but, in the words of the Press Club president, his action yesterday was "contrary to the spirit" of the transparency that he worked for. And not the kind of behavior that one normally finds at the Press Club, of all places.

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And finally, we end this week with the sweetest four words in the lexicon of Americana:

Pitchers and catchers report.

Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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