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Irreconcilable Differences

By Dan Froomkin
9:59 AM ET, 02/13/2009


In happier times: Obama introduces Gregg as commerce secretary nominee on Feb. 3. (AP)

The voters sent President Obama to Washington with a mandate to change the way this town works. But yesterday's decision by GOP Sen. Judd Gregg to withdraw as the commerce secretary nominee is the latest sign that the Republican Party has no interest in going along.

Obama, while aggressively pursuing a traditionally Democratic agenda, has nevertheless said that in the long run he and Republicans can find a considerable amount of common ground around shared values and pragmatism.

But Gregg's withdrawal is yet more evidence either that Obama underestimated the ideological gulf between the elected officials of the two parties, or that Republicans are getting more rather than less hostile towards efforts to reach out. Or both.

Consider that in the 10 days since Obama publicly introduced Gregg as his nominee -- several weeks after Gregg apparently approached the White House with the idea -- the president's positions haven't changed. Gregg cited concerns about the stimulus package and direction of the 2010 Census in his initial statement yesterday. But Obama's views on the stimulus have been consistent for a long time.

The census is a traditionally thorny political issue, with Democrats being much more keen than Republicans on ensuring minorities and the poor are properly counted. And the White House last week did indicate it would increase its oversight -- possibly because of concerns about Gregg's history of supporting census budget cuts. But in a news conference yesterday, Gregg clarified that the census was "only a slight catalyzing issue. It was not a major issue."

So what did change? Republicans, who found themselves in disarray after their resounding defeats in the 2008 elections, have been feeling increasingly emboldened -- and defined -- by their opposition to Obama's presidency in general, and his massive stimulus package in particular.

And while Gregg was personally gracious towards Obama in his public statements, Republican leaders welcomed the senator back to their fold as a returning hero, his decision a rebuke to Obama's agenda and the president's attempts to co-opt the GOP.

The AFP reports that Obama told reporters aboard Air Force One late yesterday that his crusade for bipartisanship would continue.

"I am going to keep on working at this," he said, adding that Americans were "desperate" for their leaders to find common ground.

"I am an eternal optimist."

The AP reports that Obama even joked about what happened at a dinner honoring Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday last night: "In 1854, Lincoln was simply a Springfield lawyer who'd served just a single term in Congress," Obama said as he tried to imagine Lincoln writing about national unity.

"Possibly in his law office, his feet on a cluttered desk, his sons playing around him, his clothes a bit too small to fit his uncommon frame, maybe wondering if somebody might call him up and ask him to be commerce secretary ..."

But the fact remains that Gregg's departure is a setback for Obama in any number of ways, not just because it frustrates his ideas of bipartisanship. It distracts from his focus on addressing the financial crisis and adds to the sense that he is having a peculiarly hard time filling his Cabinet.

Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "Saying he 'made a mistake,' Republican Sen. Judd Gregg withdrew yesterday as the nominee for commerce secretary, dealing a fresh blow to President Obama's quest to fill out his Cabinet and dramatically undercutting his efforts to forge a new bipartisanship in the capital....

"Senior Obama officials portrayed the latest personnel debacle as reflecting badly on Gregg alone, insisting they are still on course to change the tone in Washington and implement the president's policies. But aides acknowledged that it is now clear that Obama has not been rewarded for reaching across the aisle, and they said he feels no imperative to replace Gregg with another Republican."

Kornblut and Shear write that White House officials pointed "to Gregg's seemingly peculiar decision to accept a job that would, by definition, require him to adhere to the positions that he later claimed drove him away....

"'I think what ended Judd Gregg's hope of and desire of being the commerce secretary wasn't anything any Democrat said or did, but what Republicans said and did,' a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Democratic officials said they believed Gregg would have potentially faced rough questioning from Republicans during his confirmation hearings as they worked to find the GOP's footing as an opposition party."

But as Kornblut and Shear note: "The episode underscored how burdensome Cabinet selection has become for the new administration, which has watched nearly half a dozen of its top appointees withdraw or face embarrassing scrutiny over the past several weeks."

And the snark, of course, is inevitable. Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "With Sen. Judd Gregg's rediscovery yesterday that he was actually a Republican and that President Obama favored a stimulus package, Obama may be en route to setting a new world indoor record for top-tier nomination withdrawals."

Martin Kady II and David Rogers write in Politico that Gregg publicly took the blame. "'The fault lies with me,' Gregg told Politico. He refused to discuss any conversations he had with Obama, saying, 'I may have embarrassed myself, but hopefully not him.'"

Gregg told reporters of Obama: "I immensely respect him. I know he's going to be a strong and effective and good president. But for me, I just realized as this issues started to come at us and as they started to crystallize, that it really wasn't a good fit."

But Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "Despite Gregg's assurances that he was to blame, leading Republicans said the move amounted to a repudiation of Obama's liberal agenda and a rebuke of his bipartisan outreach....

"'He was uncomfortable philosophically with the position he would be put in,' said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

"McConnell said that he had spoken regularly with Gregg since he decided to accept the nomination and that in recent days Gregg increasingly indicated doubts about taking the job. McConnell said he expects Gregg to receive a 'standing ovation' when he walks into the next gathering of the Senate Republican Conference....

"After recusing himself from Senate procedures since his nomination Feb. 3, Gregg will return for the stimulus vote, expected today. He has refused to say how he will vote. His Republican friends expect him to oppose the measure, giving them the symbolic victory of a former Obama insider voting against the legislation."

Charles Mahtesian writes for Politico: "Judd Gregg was all but dead to his Republican colleagues just a few days ago, another collaborator drinking the Obama Kool-Aid.

"But the New Hampshire senator's surprise decision to remove himself from consideration as President Barack Obama's Commerce secretary Thursday has provided the GOP with a new rallying cry, and a new hero against a foe who just a few weeks ago seemed almost unassailable.....

"By citing reservations about the economic recovery package, Gregg reinforced widespread GOP criticism about wasteful spending that has less to do with reviving the economy than rewarding Democratic constituencies. And by noting his differing view on the census, Gregg breathed life into Republican charges of a White House power grab over a critical Commerce Department function.

"Both issues are part of an emerging GOP case against Obama and the ruling Democratic Party: Strip away the new face, the lofty rhetoric and the promises of post-partisanship and you'll find the same big-spending party of old, bent on politicizing government to consolidate its hold on power....

"In its diminished but highly concentrated form — the result of two elections that all but purged the party of its wayward moderates — the GOP is showing signs it's regained its mojo, and some see Judd Gregg's withdrawal as a pivotal moment in the building process."

And here's one more thing to keep in mind: Who really cares about The Commerce Department, anyway? Gregg made more news yesterday than he would have during his entire tenure.

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "Quick, who headed the Commerce Department under President George W. Bush?

"No disrespect to Carlos M. Gutierrez, but commerce secretary is not one of Washington's more glamorous jobs...

"Over the long run, Obama's difficulty in filling the Commerce post may prove little more than a time-consuming distraction when he needs to focus on the economic crisis.

"'Let's be honest,' White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told reporters Thursday night. 'Will the economic recovery or Judd Gregg be a bigger discussion point a week from now?'"

Here's the official White House reaction yesterday: "Senator Gregg reached out to the President and offered his name for Secretary of Commerce. He was very clear throughout the interviewing process that despite past disagreements about policies, he would support, embrace, and move forward with the President's agenda. Once it became clear after his nomination that Senator Gregg was not going to be supporting some of President Obama's key economic priorities, it became necessary for Senator Gregg and the Obama administration to part ways. We regret that he has had a change of heart."

Here's what Gregg said when Obama introduced him as the commerce nominee on Feb. 3: "We are, as you noted, in the middle of a very difficult economic time. People are worried about their jobs. They're worried about how they're going to pay their bills. They're worried about how they're going to send their kids to college. And you've outlined an extraordinarily bold and aggressive, effective and comprehensive plan for how we can get this country moving.

"This is not a time for partisanship. This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other. This is a time to govern and govern well."

Gregg's decision spurred predictably fighting words from Karl Rove, who wrote in a Washington Post survey of pundits: "What Judd Gregg showed today is that he's not willing to swap his integrity for a place in the Cabinet."

Rove didn't let facts get in the way of his narrative, either: "[W]hen the administration set aside its own principles of 'temporary, targeted and timely' stimulus measures to embrace a big spending measure full of programs that Gregg has opposed since coming to Congress, New Hampshire's senior senator realized that he was window dressing and that the administration had a greater interest in grabbing his Senate seat in 2010 than in listening to his counsel today."

Obama's stimulus measure was, of course, well-defined by the time Gregg signed on; and he said yesterday he's not running for re-election anyway.

In that same Post survey, Larry J. Sabato writes: "The Gregg withdrawal can be a watershed. It's been a grand and noble experiment, but now the Obama administration should abandon aggressive bipartisanship. The president deserves great credit for reaching out to Republicans in Cabinet appointments, frequent consultation and some substantive compromise on the stimulus bill. President Obama read public opinion correctly: Americans want civil debate between the parties, and that aspect of bipartisanship should be continued.

"Yet pleasantries should never be exchanged at the cost of an electoral mandate."

Andrew Sullivan blogs for the Atlantic: "When Judd Gregg approached the Obama administration to see if he could be a part of it, he was assuming that his own party wasn't going to adopt a policy of total warfare against the newly elected president in a time of enormous economic peril. Between that moment and the current all-out ideological assault on Obama, his position became untenable."

Damon Linker blogs for the New Republic: "I wonder: What will these folks do when and if the polls show that Obama's approval ratings remain high? Will they then recognize how far out of synch they are with the mood of the country? Or will they burrow deeper into denial, indulging in endless fantasies of Obama's self-immolation?"

And plenty of progressives, who weren't happy about Gregg's nomination in the first place, are anything but brokenhearted. Chris Bowers blogs for OpenLeft: "You know, I have never seen so many Democratic activists so happy about what is apparently a major defeat for Democrats. Every blog post, and virtually every comment I read, is ecstatic."

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