And They're Off!
It is that time of year again, when New Hampshire schools let out for winter break, and adult life as many northern New Englanders know it is temporarily turned upside down (in a good way). So, I will be away from the website next week, and will return with new content for you on Monday, March 2nd.
In the meantime, there will be a lot of political news to keep you busy. The National Governors Association conference kicks off in Washington, D.C. tomorrow, with several potential Republican presidential contenders in attendance. President Obama delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress at 9 p.m. EST on Tuesday evening, February 24th. He also releases an outline of his first budget on Thursday, February 26th. And, I will be eager to see whether Roland Burris is still the junior senator from Illinois by the time I resume posting. I'll talk to you soon. -Dean
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Sununu or Later
As John DiStaso’s column in the Union Leader today underscores, there seems to be an emerging consensus among local Republican political elites that John E. Sununu should have the right of first refusal to run for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Judd Gregg in 2010. The party appears acutely aware that it needs to develop a deeper bench of potential candidates for statewide office, but perhaps believes a high-stakes Senate race is not the optimal place to test-drive new talent. A run for one of the House seats may be a more appropriate place to see who can swim.
The argument I frequently hear in John Sununu’s favor is that in addition to instant name recognition, he has the campaign experience, fundraising ability, and understanding of the office necessary to hit the ground running against an opponent likely to be a sitting Member of Congress (i.e., Paul Hodes or Carol Shea-Porter). All of this sounds like reasonable political calculation to me, provided it is not based on the mistaken notion that Sununu lost last November only because he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Until it becomes clear to me that Republican elites in the state have moved beyond the idea that Jeanne Shaheen’s victory was a fluke largely driven by temporary national forces, I will remain skeptical of Sununu’s ability to win back a seat in the Senate. Rerunning a name brand might very well be the best option for Republicans. But given the changing political demography of the state, the party also needs a fresh message. This is something on which Sununu’s Republican legislative colleagues in Washington don’t seem to be making much progress at the moment. If Sununu hangs his comeback on a similar boilerplate “return to conservative principles” message, I think it will be a very difficult race for him.
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Huck PAC Takes Me Back
When I saw this item over at New Hampshire Presidential Watch, for a moment it felt like we were back in the heat of the 2008 presidential campaign. Just as he did over at PolitickerNH and at the 2008 incarnation of his website, Cosmo highlights the tasty political tidbits you might otherwise miss.
Brian’s post notes the launch next week of a New Hampshire chapter of former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s Huck PAC. If you take a quick look at Huckabee’s website, you’ll learn the event here is part of a coordinated nationwide evening of house parties, clearly designed to expand Huckabee’s grassroots network of social conservatives.
We haven’t heard much from Huckabee since his post-election book tour, although he was briefly back in the news recently for calling the Obama Administration’s stimulus bill “anti-religious.” My guess is Huckabee will continue to quietly build his grassroots organization in advance of a potential 2012 presidential run. In the near term, the emphasis will likely be on using Huck PAC to back like-minded conservative candidates in the 2010 midterm elections, much as he did for Bob Clegg’s primary run for the NH-02 congressional seat. And there is always the weekend television gig on Fox News to keep him in the public eye.
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Highs in the 70s
As thoughts turn to next week’s winter break for New Hampshire schools, Arizona and Florida won’t be the only possible destinations with highs in the 70s. Right here in the Granite State, new public opinion data from the UNH Survey Center shows Gov. John Lynch starting his third term in office with an impressive 74% approval rating.
The one caveat of course is that the survey was conducted between February 5th and 9th, before Gov. Lynch’s February 12th budget address announcing layoffs. So, it can’t account for any potential negative impact of the governor’s budget proposal on his approval rating. Still, a net favorability rating of +68% in your fifth year as chief executive is a pretty remarkable feat. We will have to wait and see whether subsequent polling picks up any negative reaction to the current budget situation, even as Lynch prepares to oversee distribution of the federal stimulus dollars that will arrive shortly.
I have noted before that two key factors appear to be working in the governor’s favor. First, voters tend to view the current economic crisis as national, if not global in scope. As a result, any individual governor is less likely to pay a political price for difficulties viewed to some extent as beyond his control (Republican arguments about Lynch’s culpability not withstanding).
Second, Lynch’s style of governing exhibits a notable lack of partisan messaging and a knack for presenting bad news as shared sacrifice. As the governor’s budget address underscores, he speaks the language of business and managerial science, rather than ideology. The result is fewer counterproductive pokes in the eye of the opposition. In fact, for all of the talk about President Obama’s plans for a post-partisan Washington, it feels like the governor’s own pilot program has been underway at the Statehouse for several years now.
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My Burris-itis is Acting Up
I think the folks at First Read are onto something with their suggestion that the new controversy surrounding Illinois Senator Roland Burris may provide Democrats in the state with an unexpected rationale for backing a competitive party primary to move Burris out of the seat in 2010.
When Democratic leaders in Congress balked at seating Burris back in January, I found their explanation to be unpersuasive. But I am now equally skeptical of Burris' justification for waiting an extra month to mention several phone conversations with former Gov. Blagojevich’s brother, in which he was asked for help with financial contributions. Burris has duly noted that no assistance was given, and his earlier testimony on the matter may not amount to perjury. But Democrats in Illinois and Washington, D.C. are once again left shaking their heads, even as they perhaps glimpse a silver electoral lining.
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Doris Kearns Goodwin for Commerce Secretary
So much for that team of rivals President Obama has had his eye on in recent months. Throughout the presidential transition, we heard ad nauseum about how the composition of the president-elect’s cabinet would reflect Abraham Lincoln’s divergent viewpoint approach to executive governance, as recently popularized in a book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Obama’s desire for a team of his own was no doubt driven in part by his genuine fascination with our sixteenth president, but it was also most certainly a reaction to the tremendous criticism the Bush Administration received for its years of insularity and groupthink.
Senator Gregg seems to suggest his withdrawal is largely a very public case of cold feet. But as many Republicans in Congress appear to be reveling in their unified opposition to the stimulus package (even with passage likely), Gregg may have also become concerned he would end up as a man without a country over at Commerce. Whatever the true underlying cause, the White House and Republicans are now engaged in a pretty vicious round of “he said, he said” finger-pointing, as each side tries to blame the other for the collapse of this brief episode of partisan rapprochement.
So, we will see whether President Obama attempts to bring another true rival into his inner circle of policy advisors. If you are instead counting on former Republican Congressman Ray LaHood at Transportation to be a constant foil for Obama, you may be disappointed. Does anyone remember Norman Mineta? That leaves only Bob Gates at the Pentagon, but he is a bureaucrat, rather than a duly elected rival. Plus, he and Obama seem to be largely on the same page for the moment, which makes him a part of the team, but not much of a rival.
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Budgets and Bureaucracies
If you caught Gov. Lynch’s budget address this morning, you are aware that he has given local political observers a lot to chew on in the coming weeks and months.  The state is looking at a hundred million dollar deficit for the remainder of this fiscal year, and the likelihood of one several times larger for the next biennium. As a result, Lynch faces a tremendous challenge in trying to balance the state budget for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.
As policymakers, the public, and the media take a closer look at the details of how the governor achieves that balance, there will no doubt be much discussion of the projected layoff of 250-300 state employees, the proposed increases in tolls and car registration fees, and a continued pledge to veto a statewide sales or income tax.
But I was also struck by the extent to which Lynch seemed to be proposing a reengineering of state government, through program consolidation, elimination, and redefinition based on a set of guiding policy principles and priorities. He could have simply slashed spending across the board, leaving existing bureaucracies financially austere, but largely intact. Instead, the governor seems to view the current economic crisis as an opportunity to fundamentally reposition state government for the future.
Actually following through on this tantalizing suggesting may turn out to be Lynch’s biggest challenge as his budget package is dissected in the state legislature over the next four months. Bureaucracies are often protective of their turf and remarkably resistant to change.  And the fact that the governor at several points mentioned that his proposal is only “one roadmap” makes me wonder a little about how hard he will push in the end for this sort of systemic change. But if the economy continues to worsen, there may be no better time for him to start this conversation than right now.
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Attention Deficit
I will be providing color commentary for New Hampshire Public Radio’s coverage of Gov. Lynch’s budget address tomorrow morning. With some estimates placing the state’s potential budget shortfall at $500 million over the next two years, all eyes will be on the Statehouse. You can listen to NHPR’s live coverage at 10 a.m. here (lower left).
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Word Up
My initial reaction to President Obama’s first primetime press conference last night was, wow, that was a lot of words. As a former professor, I am hesitant to use the word professorial to describe Obama’s performance, but I am sure some other political observers will employ that particular adjective.
In recent years, I have gotten into the habit of multitasking during these kinds of televised presidential events. With President Bush, you pretty much knew what he was going to say, and it often took him a long time to say it. Watching last night’s event, however, I was actually somewhat fearful that entire paragraphs might fly by unprocessed should I attempt to divide my attention with other matters. It also occurred to me that Obama probably surpassed Bush’s average word count for an entire press conference within the first 15 minutes last night.
All of this is not to say that more is necessarily better. We are all familiar with the cliché of the liberal intellectual who tends to talk issues to death. And I know that some conservatives appreciated President Bush’s directness and parsimony with words, the entertaining malapropisms not withstanding. But last night Obama seemed to make good use of his bully pulpit (I must admit to being a little tired of this phrase). Coming sandwiched between public events in Indiana and Florida, it was an important part of his attempt to make a clearer case for the stimulus package.
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House of Style
While you await President Obama’s first primetime press conference this evening, you can listen to me talk presidential politics earlier today as a guest on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning show. We spent most of the hour discussing what various political developments in the first three weeks of the Obama Administration suggest about the president’s emerging style of leadership in office. You can listen to a podcast of the show here.
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Blast Zone
I have been using the web to follow the stimulus debate in Congress pretty closely in recent days, and over the past 24 hours I have started to feel the need to don a hard hat when I sit down in front of my computer. If you believe the reporting coming out of Washington, there is a whole lot of blasting going on in the vicinity of Capitol Hill. 
For example, gets into the explosive spirit with this article about John McCain “blasting” President Obama like it was still October of 2008. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time some form of the verb to blast has popped up on the Politico website to describe a politician’s rhetoric on the stimulus bill, well, let’s just say the drinks would be on me tonight.
Some of this behavior is no doubt pretty standard political posturing in advance of a final compromise being reached in the conference committee, probably sometime late next week. But all of this “blasting” underscores for me the extent to which, even with the historic Obama victory last November, we are very quickly back to predictable  behavior by the usual legislative suspects. Constrained by ideology and interest group pressure, leaders in both parties typically focus on what they find unacceptable, rather than on where they might find common ground. It is no wonder that presidents learn in short order to become comfortable with party-line votes in Congress. All we need now is Joe Lieberman to decry the breakdown of legislative comity, of course more out of sadness than in anger.
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What a Week
I will be a guest this weekend on New Hampshire Public Television’s NH Outlook.  We will be discussing the exciting political developments of the past week, and taking a look at their potential impact on the 2010 midterm elections. The show airs on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m., and is replayed on Monday at 6:00 p.m.
Update (2/6/09):  You get a twofer from me this weekend, as I will also be covering similar political terrain as a guest on WMUR-TV's Close Up (10 a.m., Ch. 9) this Sunday.
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2010, Here We Go Again
Several readers have asked me to comment on what the Judd Gregg/Bonnie Newman switch might mean for New Hampshire Democrats in 2010. Let me begin by saying (as I have before) that the scenario in which Gov. Lynch appoints a strong Democratic successor to Senator Gregg, thereby giving Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate, was just not realistic. Gregg would not have allowed it to happen, and I don’t think that was President Obama’s intention in making the choice. So, the rancor now directed at Lynch from the left is academic.
Although some Democrats believe Judd Gregg was vulnerable, I still think it is fair to say that he would have been the strongest candidate to defend the seat in 2010. My guess is it would have been a very contentious and expensive general election campaign, but he would have been tough to unseat. Now Republicans are in a difficult position. I don’t know that going back to the bench of unseated incumbents is a winning strategy. Those in the party who think John E. Sununu lost only because he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time” have not fully grasped the state’s changing political demography. Yet they don’t have much time to cultivate new political talent from within the party ranks either.
So, all things considered, I think yesterday’s outcome is a net positive for New Hampshire Democrats. I won’t guarantee them the Senate seat in 2010, but not having to unseat Gregg wins them half the battle up-front. The rest will depend on whether there are any primary challenges and what the final general election match-up looks like. Stay tuned for much more on these questions in the coming weeks.
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The More Things Change
It is true that the Obama campaign, transition and administration have all been shaped by the electorate’s overriding desire for change, but today it sure felt like the business-as-usual inertia of Washington politics was starting to set in early. Not one, but two Obama nominees were forced to withdraw their nominations due to tax problems, a classic vetting slip-up that has spelled doom for more than one nominee in previous administrations, and hurt the current administration's credibility on the issue of bringing change to the ingrained customs and norms governing politics inside the beltway.
In Tom Daschle’s case, the old school, revolving door flavor of his recent financial windfall in the private sector was also starting to make some folks on both sides of the aisle a bit queasy. Daschle was initially seen as the right person for the complex job of spearheading health care reform, but these confirmation episodes take on a momentum of their own. When problems arise, you can count on whichever party is in the minority to chant “double standard,” with increasing frequency and volume, as the media barrage inevitably heightens in intensity to a fever pitch. An old political hand like Daschle can spot this kind of death spiral trajectory as it starts to take shape.
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The Waiting is the Hardest Part
I held off from posting on the Senator Gregg story earlier today, in order to wait a bit longer for any breaking developments. In addition to the statement released by Gov. Lynch this afternoon, is now reporting that Gregg will indeed be named tomorrow as President Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary.
If you had asked me to write the statement released by Gov. Lynch’s office based on what I have observed of his governing style over the past four years, I would have come up with something very close to what was actually made public. As a result, I am not surprised to see that some political observers on the left are disappointed that Lynch is once again exhibiting a moderate’s preference for political stability, and a task-oriented approach to New Hampshire governance that bypasses the typical partisan filter.
I understand the sentiment expressed by some generally supportive Democrats that Gov. Lynch may be setting himself up to miss a rare opportunity to move the Progressive agenda forward by giving Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. But, from the moment this story broke, those expectations have struck me as unrealistic. Not simply because of how Lynch chooses to govern, but because I don’t think Gregg would allow it to happen, nor do I think it was ever really part of Obama’s calculus in making this particular choice.
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