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Paul Jenkins

Paul Jenkins

Posted February 6, 2009 | 04:50 PM (EST)

Obama's Big Tent Bursting at the Seams


Barack Obama, just a couple of weeks into his presidency, has already squeezed one person too many into his big tent, Judd Gregg, his new Commerce Secretary, a right-wing Republican who once wanted to dismantle the department he is about to run. Now if Obama's intention was in fact to get rid of the Commerce Department because it serves no purpose, the appointment would perhaps have made sense, but it appears that is not the plan, and so Gregg is just a redundant clown in Obama's circus.

There are two other Republicans in the Cabinet, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a remnant of the Bush administration, and Ray LaHood, the Transportation Secretary. Time will tell whether keeping Gates was a good idea, but LaHood, a man from a party whose strategy for improving transportation involves more cars, more roads and more gas? Surely, the Democratic Party is not lacking in far more visionary people on this issue than the moderately interesting LaHood.

Perhaps the current national crisis is at the root of Obama's persistence in reaching out to Republicans, a sort of multi-party War Cabinet focused on the economy. But that misses the point: the country is not under attack from outside forces, at least as far as the economy goes; it is under attack from within, and more specifically from the Republicans themselves, who are intent on sabotaging any effort at stanching the bleeding. There is room to disagree on the nature of and even the need for a stimulus package, or a banking bailout, but the alternatives need to be both realistic and not destined to repeat the country's most recent failures. On that count, Republicans have made themselves irrelevant, and there should simply be no room at the table for them.

As it is, even without adding redundant Republicans to the Cabinet and otherwise reaching out to the GOP, Obama and the Democratic Party have a struggle ahead of them. They are remarkably unified at this point, but that's what happens when your leader has a 70% approval rating: it's kind of hard to dissent too strongly. At most you throw a tiff here and a tiff there, Dianne Feinstein-style, but really you try your best to toe the line. Sooner or later, though, Obama will be less popular and, at that point, he will be dealing with a party that is very large and very diverse, and whose many voices will want to be heard, especially at election time.

The Democrats' size and range are both the cause and the result of their recent electoral successes. Their candidates are by and large well suited to their constituencies and far more pragmatic than their Republican counterparts, a narrow band of increasingly hard-line conservative extremists. The new Democratic Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, is a perfect example of this. She was sent to Congress by a conservative upstate district, favoring a range of positions that are anathema to progressives, perhaps most injuriously her preposterous support for the English Only movement. Now a Senator running for statewide election next year, she has already switched radically on the issue of same-sex marriage (which she now favors) and she will also "evolve" on guns and immigration, or go down to defeat in New York's Democratic primary. Gillibrand's neck-twisting conversions are distasteful and not particularly convincing, but they are indicative of a Democratic Party intent on surviving and on thriving in power. They also demonstrate the wide ideological gaps in a party that has seen gains across nearly all demographics and geographies.

In fact, many of the party's new members of Congress are precisely from districts and states that were not particularly friendly territory until recently, in rural and exurban districts, and in the interior West and the South. That they find common ground with their urban and suburban elders on the Coasts is remarkable, and is fraught with risk in the long run. For that reason, it would seem like a much better idea to focus on those potential stray centrist Blue Dog Democrats than on wildly untrustworthy Republicans whose every instinct is understandably to regain power at the expense of the current President. Perhaps more to the point, shouldn't Obama be focusing on what he was elected, actually mandated, to do, which is to change things, and to do so in a progressive manner? It is hard to imagine that the independents, crossover Republicans and moderate Democrats who voted for Obama would be stunned if the man named the most liberal Senator set out to implement policies that are, well, liberal.

Of course, all of the bipartisan posturing by Obama may well simply be a way for him to be able to say that he tried and the Republicans did not cooperate, but it all seems like a dreadful waste of time and energy. The Republican Party needs to find its way back to some kind of even vaguely mainstream place, at which point it may be a more useful partner for Obama, but now is not the time (nor will it be soon judging by the rhetoric from the party's new leader.) The moment will also come when the Democratic cats of many stripes will need to be herded, and we know Obama will be up to the task. But for now, if the President believes the United States is in a crisis that threatens its very foundation, as he has intimated, then surely he should not worry about losing the Ben Nelsons and Susan Collins of the world. Time will tell if Obama is right about his plan to save the US economy, but hopefully he would rather be blamed for having acted decisively in a crisis and been wrong than for wasting time seducing one more reluctant politician into a tent that is already feeling way too cramped.