Friday, February 6, 2009

Gregg, Commerce, and Healthcare Reform

There has been a lot of talk lately about why President Obama (neat) has decided to nominate Senator Gregg to be his Commerce Secretary, most of it somewhat confounded. The conventional wisdom at work seem to be that even though this will maybe make some votes easier in the Senate, since Gregg, a pretty reactionary Republican, will be replaced by a Republican moderate, maybe even a RINO, there is really no reason why Obama would want a Gregg at Commerce. Well, I think I have a answer, and the answer is healthcare.

As is being illustrated right now with the Stimulus Bill, and which was obvious during Bush's attempt to destroy—er, reform—Social Security, any big governmental change, politically, requires bipartisan support. This isn't just necessary to spread the blame around, although that is a factor, but also to make any change look moderate and essential. If people from both parties support a change, it must just be an obvious and necessary change in course, not a sharp turn into uncharted territory. As Neil will tell you, when Pelosi shut the House Dems out of any negotiations, refusing to give a counter-offer to the ideas Bush was floating around, the Republicans backed off and didn't move towards privatization. It was too risky an endeavor for a party to take on their own. The Wall Street Bailout wouldn't pass the House without bipartisan support; no party wanted to own a very unpopular move to give $700 billion to the people that had gotten us into the mess in the first place, even if inaction might have lead to a credit freeze that would have actually thrown us into a Great Depression. Now, Obama wants bipartisan support for his smuttily tagged Stimulus Package, since he doesn't want to spend another $700 to 800 Billion ($900 billion?) without some of that sweet, sweet bipartisan support. He won't get it; he might just get some votes for cloture and no votes for the actual bill. But the Stimulus Package is such a no-brainer necessity at this point that it doesn't really matter what votes they get, the Dems need to go through with it regardless. Still, that hurts Obama's bipartisan clout, and on something less one-time, more long-term change, like health care, bipartisan support will be even more necessary.

So, if Obama can't get bipartisan cover, he can just make some. Make it in-house. With Gregg at Commerce, he can talk about how his bipartisan administration is working on correcting the massive issue of healthcare, and he is including both sides of the aisle in the planning. And since Gregg is part of the administration, that means he de facto supports it, for the administration supports it, and is he not part of the administration? Healthcare reform immediately looks less radical. And it's pretty easy to include Gregg in this project. Commerce, I understand, has some vague responsibilities in terms of promoting business, and Obama for a long time has been talking about the negative effects of the healthcare crisis on businesses; small ones can't supply it and it's bankrupting big ones. If he can be persuaded to, Gregg could end up playing some kind of liaison role, talking up the benefits of supporting health care reform to businesses, pointing out how it will ease their bottom line, especially in tough times like these.

Will Gregg go along with this? The way I see it, once confirmed as Commerce Secretary, Gregg has basically three options: 1) be a kind of loyal opposition/opposing viewpoint within the administration, offering counterpoint to ideas put forth by the more liberal (read:all) members, while performing the tasks President Obama assigns him, 2) Not do his job, disobey orders, attempt to sabotage the effort and get fired, or 3) resign in principled opposition, in order to show how far left this healthcare project is.

If he goes with either of latter two, it's no biggie. This is the benefit of Gregg actually being fairly conservative. If he leaves, it's not exactly a canary-in-a-coalmine type moment. It's quite easy for the Obama administration to spin that as just principled opposition from the far-right, wish Gregg the best on his endeavors, blah blah blah. It's not like they have been rejected by a Snowe, Collins, or Specter here. And they still got a hard-right Republican out of office and leveled the playing field for the seat in 2010.

But I think Gregg will take the first option. Commerce is it for him. This is the last stop of his career, and he knows it. The Republicans will be pissed at him behind closed doors for diluting their brand and making his seat more vulnerable. New Hampshire is pretty blue now, and they will probably lose the seat in 2010, since it's questionable whether Gregg would even be able to hold it then, even with the weight of incumbency. So he probably can't rely on too much Republican largess after he leaves public service. Gregg wants a job that has a good chance of going past 2010, and he wants a nice capstone to his career, and that doesn't mean resigning when healthcare comes up. Healthcare is coming this year; Gregg isn't going to resign before he might have lost his seat in the Senate. He may try to follow option 2, and if he does it is up to Obama to put his foot down, which, given his last couple of speeches on the Stimulus, I think it can be assumed he will.

After that, I bet Gregg with settle into his role as counterpoint, and comfort himself for the little checks or advice he gives, and the influence and closeness to the halls of power that he has. And Obama will talk about his bipartisan effort to reform healthcare, and Gregg will stand behind him at speeches and clap, or sit at photo-op meetings with Summers and Biden and the Secretaries of Labor and HHS and Treasury and OMB, and smile.