As if Washington hadn’t become a surreal place anyway what with politicians casually throwing around trillions of dollars as if it were chump change.
For commerce secretary nominee Judd Gregg, it was the overwhelming nature of the stimulus bill that apparently opened his eyes to the fundamental incompatibility inherent in a relationship between a moderately conservative Republican and a president who is proposing the largest increase in federal spending ever. And lurking in the background was the issue of the White House power grab of the census — a looming battle royale that will see Republicans fighting tooth and nail to prevent the Obama White House from trying to “game” the census and increase representation for Democrats on the Hill.
It is doubtful that the withdrawal of Judd Gregg will rock President Obama’s White House. If you believe Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the New Hampshire Republican signaled earlier in the week that he was having second thoughts. A meeting with the president yesterday failed to change his mind to bow out.
In his formal statement, Gregg sounded conciliatory:
I want to thank the president for nominating me to serve in his Cabinet as secretary of commerce. This was a great honor, and I had felt that I could bring some views and ideas that would assist him in governing during this difficult time. I especially admire his willingness to reach across the aisle.
However, it has become apparent during this process that this will not work for me as I have found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the census there are irresolvable conflicts for me. Prior to accepting this post, we had discussed these and other potential differences, but unfortunately we did not adequately focus on these concerns. We are functioning from a different set of views on many critical items of policy.
Obviously the president requires a team that is fully supportive of all his initiatives.
I greatly admire President Obama and know our country will benefit from his leadership, but at this time I must withdraw my name from consideration for this position.
As we move forward, I expect there will be many issues and initiatives where I can and will work to assure the success of the president’s proposals. This will certainly be a goal of mine.
The White House released a rather petulant statement about Gregg’s withdrawal:
In a statement, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Gregg had “reached out to the president and offered his name for secretary of commerce” — and that he’d promised that, “despite past disagreements about policies, he would support, embrace and move forward with the president’s agenda.”
Obama himself told an Illinois newspaper that Gregg’s withdrawal was “something of a surprise” because the senator had “approached us with interest and seemed enthusiastic.”
Gregg denied that he “reached out” to the Obama White House for the Commerce job, saying that an intermediary had approached the administration without his knowledge.
Also curious was that there was no joint statement — a clear indication that the parting was not ideal. But neither side appears to be anxious to tee off on the other, so whatever occurred behind closed doors probably won’t be aired as dirty laundry for either side.
Gregg also indicated that there was nothing in the vetting process that would have prevented him from taking the job. Considering that Gregg is now the third Obama cabinet nominee to drop out — Tom Daschle and Bill Richardson withdrew for ethical reasons — taking pains to point out he was bowing out on his own and not due to scandal added another weird aspect to the story.
While Gregg’s statement was pretty straightforward, this interview he gave to Politico is a head-scratcher. It is almost as if Senator Gregg is beating himself up in anticipation of some of the criticisms that will come his way.
In an interview with Politico Thursday afternoon, Gregg said he “should have faced up” to the conflicts he felt earlier.
“I’ve been my own person, and I began to wonder if I could be an effective team player,” the New Hampshire Republican said. “The president deserves someone who can block for his policies. As a practical matter I can contribute to his agenda better — where we agree — as a senator and I hope to do that.”
“The fault lies with me,” Gregg continued. He refused to discuss any conversations he had with Obama, saying, “I may have embarrassed myself but hopefully not him.”
His solicitousness toward Obama is strange considering the president was pushing a spending bill at odds with everything Gregg supposedly believes about government. Come to think of it, one should wonder why he even considered taking the job in the first place.
But in the last 72 hours, a development occurred that may have started Gregg thinking that being in the Obama administration wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. The issue of the census director reporting directly to the White House means that Gregg, as commerce secretary, would lose control of one of the major programs in the department. By, in effect, politicizing the census, the Obama administration is throwing down the gauntlet and risking an all out war with congressional Republicans over the fruits of the national head count; redistricting the 435 congressional districts to reflect changes in population and the allocation of billions in federal spending.
The stakes are enormous. And given complaints against the census by Democrats over the years regarding the undercounting of African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities, we can expect the Obama White House to “find” as many of these grateful voters as is legally possible.
The potential for a true political realignment based on the gerrymandering of district lines in big states to favor more Democrats is now within the reach of the Obama White House. Is this the real reason that Gregg decided to withdraw? Perhaps he felt he was being set up to be the front man for a census that could cripple the Republican party for years to come and wanted no part of it. We may never know.
Gregg also said he is thinking seriously of not running in 2010 for reelection. This does not bode well for Republicans in the Senate who are already facing a huge challenge to make any headway in reducing the Democrat’s 59-41 advantage. New Hampshire has been getting progressively “bluer” in recent elections and the chances of a GOP hold are not good. It is probable that national Republicans will put pressure on Gregg to change his mind and make a run for another term. It may work. Gregg sounded like a man who has had a struggle with his conscience and his statement about not running again may be rescinded after some reflection.
Republicans may wish to make more of this than it is. It might have been if Gregg had withdrawn and given a powerful statement against the stimulus and the census power grab. But outside of once again raising questions about the Obama administration’s personnel problems, it is likely that this story will die down fairly quickly — just in time for the passage of Obama’s stimulus package.