The “Daschle debacle” has the Obama administration scrambling for a replacement pick for secretary of health and human Services. Reforming the U.S. health insurance system is a top priority for the Obama team, and they need someone to lead the charge that not only has the experience and credibility to craft a workable plan but the political acumen to sell it in a bipartisan fashion as well. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle seemed to fit the bill, until his failure to pay his taxes torpedoed his nomination. Thus, in the midst of a brutal and bitter battle over his stimulus/spending plan, President Obama must quickly find a strong second choice.
Two Democrat governors have apparently emerged at the top of his list of prospects: Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius and Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen. Both governors have high approval ratings in Republican states. Both have substantial experience in the health care arena. Sebelius was Kansas’ insurance commissioner for eight years before becoming governor. Bredesen became a self-made millionaire in the health care industry before becoming mayor of Nashville and governor of Tennessee. Both supported Barack Obama on the campaign trail, although Obama ultimately carried neither Kansas nor Tennessee.
At this point, Sebelius probably has the edge over Bredesen. But is she really the smart choice for Obama to make? Sebelius is extremely popular in Kansas but is term-limited from seeking re-election in 2010. Republican Senator Sam Brownback is going to seek the governor’s office being vacated by Sebelius rather than run for re-election in 2010, and Sebelius has a great chance at turning that R seat in the Senate into a D seat. In fact, recent polling indicates that she has a double-digit lead over leading Republican candidates for that seat.
In fact, Sebelius is probably the only Democrat who can move that Kansas Senate seat into the Democrats column. That is why she won’t be selected to head HHS, unless President Obama doesn’t really want a filibuster proof U.S. Senate.
Bredesen is available. He can probably work in a bipartisan fashion to promote Obama’s health reform plans better than most any of the other contenders from the ranks of the House and Senate who are extremely partisan. He would give Obama his first southern cabinet official. And he is not in position to run for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee until 2012 at the earliest — against Senator Bob Corker. Obama could probably enlist the support of both of the Republican senators from Tennessee, Corker and Lamar Alexander, in pushing the Bredesen nomination through the Republican side of the Senate with minimal controversy. (The fact that Bredesen’s selection would elevate Republican Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey into the top spot makes backing Bredesen an easy option for the Tennessee senators.) Obama doesn’t need another tough cabinet fight or another embarrassing loss of a cabinet pick. Bredesen would almost certainly breeze through the confirmation process.
Bredesen should be his choice. But he probably won’t get the nod because it just makes too much sense to pick him. Some liberal groups are opposing him because he made tough cuts in taxpayer-paid health care programs in Tennessee in order to avoid the budget disasters that now plague states that did not make those same difficult decisions. As a result, Tennessee is not now faced with making the draconian cuts that loom in places like California, New York, and Michigan.
Bredesen is not particularly close to the inner circle in the Obama administration. He may lack the top level advocates necessary to emerge as the pick. But President Obama should consider the fact that his inner circle has produced the selections that have proven so damaging in his first few weeks in office — Geithner, Daschle, Killefer, Richardson, and Solis, to name a few.
At the end of the day, political partisanship and cronyism may win the day for selection as secretary of health and human services. But if President Obama has been paying attention over the past few weeks, those criteria are not working out so well for him so far.