After Gregg Jilts Obama, Washington Assesses the Damage

After Gregg Jilts Obama, Washington Assesses the Damage

Senator Judd Gregg ended his courtship with President Obama by resorting to one of the oldest lines in the book. “It’s not about them,” the New Hampshire fiscal conservative announced Thursday, describing the White House team. “It’s about my own sense of who I am.” All at once, politicos all over Washington had the same reaction: Yeah, right.

This town knows a thing or two about power-grabbing philanderers, the ones
who wine and dine you, take you to bed, collect some campaign cash, and then
move on to the next hot catch — but not before offering a hug, and the gentle
admonition, “It’s not you, babe. It’s me.” It doesn’t so much matter that by
all appearances Gregg is no gallant, that he seemed to actually be telling
the truth when he said the reason he got cold feet at the altar was that he couldn’t bring himself to fully support the president’s agenda. What matters is that he dumped the president. He was picked to be the next Commerce Secretary, he accepted the appointment, and then he walked away — breaking the news, as it turned out, at the very moment Obama was appearing at an event in Peoria, Illinois to build support for his $789 billion stimulus plan being hammered out by Congress. In this town, the president, especially one with a 63% approval rating just three weeks into office, is not supposed to get dumped.

And so the partisans had to react. Reputations were at stake. Honor
had to be defended. “Old ways die hard around here. I know our President
won’t give up on changing the unproductive partisan habits,”
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri twittered within minutes. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who has logged a decade as a political knife fighter, issued sharp words through a press release, suggesting that it was the Senator himself who had thrown his hat into the ring in the first place. “Senator Gregg reached out to the president,” Gibbs noted, and was “very clear” that he would “support, embrace, and move forward with the president’s agenda.” Then Gibbs twisted

the rhetorical blade. “We regret that he had a change of heart,” the
spokesman said.

Republicans, meanwhile, were celebrating the ability of one of their own to
embarrass the president. “Senator Gregg made a principled decision,” crowed
House Republican leader John Boehner, in a press release. “The
Administration is taking another one on the eyelid here,” said Michael
Steele, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, in an
interview with Fox News.

This was the spin, the echo chamber. And this is all most Americans will
know about Gregg’s withdrawal: The president was denied, yet again, in his
attempt to reach across the partisan aisle.

The real reasons for Gregg’s last minute decision was another matter. A former New Hampshire Governor turned legislator, Gregg has long been his own boss. As a relative moderate, he could have held considerable sway in the tightly divided Senate. The job of Commerce Secretary, traditionally the most ceremonial and least

influential Cabinet job, offered very limited potential to shape policy. And ever since his appointment was announced, Gregg had been criticized by some Republicans both in Washington and at home in New Hampshire for being a traitor to the party.

“I just realized, as these issues started to come at us,” Gregg said, “that
it really wasn’t a good fit, and that I wouldn’t be comfortable doing this,
and that it wouldn’t be fair to [Obama] to be part of a team and not be able
to be 100 percent on the team.”

With those words, Gregg offered what may be
the most blunt statement of the challenge Obama faces in moving beyond the
partisan and ideological divisions that have long defined national politics.
Gregg declined to specify the issues or events that made him
reconsider, or why he had only just now realized that it wasn’t a good fit when his differences with the Administration’s agenda were never a secret. As for the theory that he hadn’t been happy that the White House had moved to take away some of the Commerce Department’s traditional control of the Census after Democratic activists voiced concerns about a Republican overseeing the politically-charged process, Gregg was equally vague. “The census was only a slight catalyzing issue. It was not a major issue,” he said.

Gregg, who does not expect to seek reelection in 2010, first made his
concerns clear to Obama earlier this week. They met Wednesday at the White
House, just a day after Gregg had notably chosen not to vote at all on the Senate’s stimulus plan. The news was kept secret until Thursday. In a briefing to reporters at the White House, Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said the news had

come as a blow. “My first thought was, it’s better we discovered it now than
later,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “If I said it wasn’t
a disappointment, that would lack credibility.”

The Gregg news continues a string of disappointments that have hit the Obama
team, including the withdrawal of two other cabinet nominees, Health and Human Services secretary nominee Tom Daschle and the first Commerce Secretary choice, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. But those prior separations were different in kind. Both Daschle and Richardson volunteered to leave the nomination process once their appointments became political liabilities. Gregg was a political asset to the president, one he boasted of in his Monday press conference, until he withdrew his nomination. As any teenager will tell you, it’s far better when a break up is mutual, than to get dumped when you least expect it.

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