PJ Media

The Bill Richardson Debacle: An Epic Fail for Obama

One of my not-so-guilty blogospheric pleasures is Failblog, a site dedicated to chronicling the foibles and fallibility of humankind. As I write this, the front page carries stories of the “Amateur Fireman Fail,” Parking Fail,” and Height Estimation Fail.” Perhaps due to especially notable failures, the concept of an “epic fail” has now entered into the lexicon; one hastens to note that epic fails are not solely and exclusively covered by Failblog.

May I posit that the withdrawal of Governor Bill Richardson’s name as the nominee to serve as commerce secretary in the incoming Obama administration qualifies as an “epic fail”? Anytime a presidential transition is disrupted by the need to withdraw the name of a nominee for a high-profiled cabinet post, the transition process suffers. Given the nature of the withdrawal and the reasons behind it, the Obama transition has suffered an especially tough blow. Of course, Richardson is not the only symbol of an epic fail around here; the bulk of Barack Obama’s economic program is swiftly moving into epic fail territory as well.

Richardson was rewarded both for his decision to endorse Barack Obama during the Democratic presidential nomination contest and for his experience as a former congressman, energy secretary, U.N. ambassador, and governor of New Mexico. But as it turns out, Richardson has something in common with his fellow governor, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois. Just as Blagojevich engaged in a pay-for-play scheme that entailed auctioning off the Illinois Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama to the highest bidder, Richardson got involved in his own pay-for-play scandal. A grand jury in New Mexico is investigating whether Richardson steered state bond business to businessman David Rubin in 2004 in exchange for Rubin having donated $100,000 to two of Richardson’s PACs, money that primarily went to cover expenses for Richardson and his staff during their stay at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. In addition, Rubin donated $2,900 to Richardson’s campaign for president both in 2007 and in 2008.

The Richardson withdrawal represents a remarkable stumble by a transition process that has been notable until now for its sure-footedness and its ability to garner praise from both Democrats and Republicans for the professionalism of its execution and for the quality of its appointees. It promoted the president-elect to say that Richardson “would have brought to the job of commerce secretary and our economic team great insights accumulated through an extraordinary career in federal and state office,” just before throwing Richardson under the bus. To this comment, my RedState colleague Francis Cianfrocca replies: “That makes me feel wonderful! Hey Mr. Obama, how about picking a Commerce Secretary with great insights accumulated though an extraordinary career in COMMERCE?”

It’s not a bad idea. One of the commerce secretary’s responsibilities is to be an advocate for the formulation and implementation of trade policies and nowadays, the political class doesn’t seem to have the first clue how best to conduct trade policy. One would think that with the memory of the misguided Smoot-Hawley tariff — one of the epic fails of the 20th century — still relatively fresh in our minds, we would not veer towards protectionism. And yet, we see that the incoming Obama administration sought to counterbalance the appointment of a pro-free trade United States trade representative in Ron Kirk with the appointment of the anti-free trade — and pro-card check — Hilda Solis to the Labor Department. Given this antediluvian personnel appointment, we need a commerce secretary who has both read and understands the powerful point behind Frederic Bastiat’s most famous parody, but since the president-elect seems determined to choose his commerce secretary from the ranks of government rather than from the ranks of those who actually have firsthand experience with, you know, commerce, I’m not optimistic on this front.

It would also be nice to have a commerce secretary who can give some straight talk to the rent-seekers in the private sector and economic micromanagers in the governmental sector. We’ve learned that the steel industry is seeking protection from foreign competition and that the incoming Obama administration is engaging in rampant economic nationalism by seeking to insert a “buy American” provision in any stimulus legislation that comes before the new Congress. Never mind that the steel industry, as international politics professor Daniel Drezner points out,  is currently one of the better performing industries in the economy and thus an unlikely candidate for protection. Never mind that “buy American” provisions seek to meddle in private consumer choice affairs and distort market competition by trying to favor domestic industries that may not provide the best customer service and therefore may not deserve to thrive in a free market. The incoming administration is determined to micromanage the commercial sector and it is apparently determined to pick a commerce secretary who will go along and do as he or she is told, instead of having the experience and moxie to point out to Team Obama that its conception of commercial and trade policy is all wrong and should be radically altered.

Given the ethical and legal questions surrounding his activities, I am glad that Bill Richardson has withdrawn his name for the position of commerce secretary. But I would be happier if the incoming Obama administration’s economic program was withdrawn as well and replaced with something better.

After all, Richardson’s epic fail status only harms Bill Richardson. The epic fail characteristics of the incoming administration’s economic plan, however, will harm all of us.