Nowithstanding President Obama's acknowledgement of error in the Daschle debacle - by the way, his "I screwed up" confession was more than we ever heard from George W. Bush during eight years of screw ups - the White House is showing some deft political moves yesterday by formally tapping Republican senator Judd Gregg to lead the Commerce Department.
Assuming that Gregg is confirmed by the Senate (despite protests from liberals who remember that Gregg once voted to abolish the Commerce Department), Obama will have another Republican in the Cabinet, someone who can help sell the ever-evolving economic recovery package to recalcitrant fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill. And while Gregg's presence on the Obama team will also firm up the president's bipartisan image, his abdication of his Senate seat could ultimately bring partisan benefits to the Democratic party.
Obama and the Democrats are tantalizingly close to achieving a 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority; if Al Franken prevails in his protracted Minnesota legal battle (which is likely), he would be the 59th senator in the Democratic camp. There probably won't be a 60th this year, because Gregg's New Hampshire seat will be filled temporarily by Republican Bonnie Newman - a courtesy gesture from the appointing official, New Hampshire's Democratic governor. But Newman, a former Gregg aide, is not expected to run on her own in 2010. Which means the Democrats will have a golden opportunity to snatch that seat, thanks to a New Hampshire electorate that has shifted from strongly Republican to strongly Democratic.
In 1988, the GOP owned the Granite State; the senior George Bush won New Hampshire, and the Republicans had the governor's office, both state legislative chambers, both U.S. Senate seats, and both U.S. House seats. In 2008, Obama won New Hampshire, and the Democrats have the governor's office, both state legislative chambers, both House seats, and one of the Senate seats. And, as a further mood indicator, New Hampshire in 2007 became only the fourth state to adopt same-sex civil unions.
Gregg was still reasonably popular - he posted a 53 percent approval rating in a recent statewide poll - and he may well have survived a 2010 re-election challenge. But the New Hampshire Republicans have a thin bench without him, and the electorate - which has been transformed by waves of highly-educated liberal transplants from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut - might be just as hostile as it was during the George W. Bush era.
Indeed, the Gregg abdication is just one more potential headache for the GOP next year, as the minority party struggles to keep the Democrats below the 60-seat threshold. (I'll concede that it sounds premature to discuss the 2010 Senate races, but, rest assured, the early fundraising, candidate recruitment, and TV ads are already in the works; as always, policymaking and politicking are inextricably intertwined.) Most notably, the Republicans next year will be stuck defending 19 of the 36 seats - six of them in states that Obama carried in the '08 election.
By another measure, five of those seats are wide open, due to the departures of Republican incumbents. Gregg aside, there is a noteworthy quartet of retirees: Kit Bond of Missouri, Mel Martinez of Florida, George Voinovich of Ohio, and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Assuming that the Democrats field strong candidates, they have good prospects in all four - even Kansas, where popular Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius might make the race (assuming that she doesn't wind up in Obama's Cabinet, perhaps taking the job that was intended for Tom Daschle). And there is also concern among Republicans that Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning has lost his fastball at age 78, and that he could go down. Ditto faux "family values" Louisianan David Vitter (R-Cathouse). Some observers might even put Pennsylvanian Arlen Specter on this list, but not me; Specter strikes me as the ultimate survivor, like Hal the cockroach in the film WALL-E.
The Democrats do have a few vulnerabilities - including, potentially, Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has already been targeted in GOP TV ads, in part because his Nevada numbers have been soft. But Democrats would only need to net one new seat in order to hit 60, and there are abundant scenarios for that. The removal of Judd Gregg merely adds another.
Of course, all this assumes (perhaps incorrectly) that Obama is generally popular 18 months from now. And that may well hinge on whether the economic recovery plan enacted in 2009 bears fruit in 2010. If Obama and the Democrats pass something with minimal or nonexistent Republican support, and the moves pay off, then Gregg's old Senate seat and several others will be lost to the GOP well into the next decade. But if the Republicans opt to stand aside this winter and basically allow Obama and the Democrats to pass something that ultimately doesn't work, they could be well positioned to profit politically in 2010 with a battle cry of I Told You So.
That's not exactly high-minded thinking, but at least they haven't resorted to true desperation, like perhaps inviting Joe the Plumber to brief them on the issues, or something similarly lampoonish....Oh wait, I stand corrected. They did bring in Joe the Plumber. It happened yesterday, in fact. Need I say more?
The quote of the day belongs to James F. Reda, director of a compensation consulting firm that handles blue-chip companies. He wasn't happy to learn that Obama will soon slap a cap on the annual wages of all top executives at companies receiving large amounts of bailout money from America's taxpayers. To qualify for the bailout money, each of these masters of the universe will be required to work for, at most, half a million dollars a year. With no bonuses attached.
Reda's response: "That is pretty draconian — $500,000 is not a lot of money."