One Hundred and One
I am still recovering from my “100 Days” hangover, so I won’t be posting tomorrow.  I’ll be back on Monday (May 4th) with new content for you. In the meantime, you can listen to me discussing the Obama Administration’s first 100 days in office at great length here.  See you on Monday. -Dean
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The Old Switcheroo
I must admit that I was as surprised as anyone by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democratic Party yesterday, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been. In recent months, I have seen Specter bristle visibly at the treatment he has received from some members of his party, especially after his vote in support of President Obama’s stimulus package.
I thought the president offered an interesting take on how Specter might help the Senate Democratic Caucus at this evening’s “100 Days” press conference. Obama suggested Specter’s switch would liberate the centrist senator politically, thereby allowing him to openly support Democratic legislation on issues like health care, job creation, and infrastructure improvement. As a Republican up for reelection in 2010, Specter might have otherwise felt the need to oppose these kinds of proposals for fear of a primary challenge from the right wing of his party.
Having watched Specter operate for many years now, I have no doubt he will very quickly insert himself into the senior ranks of the Senate Democratic Caucus, with an expectation that his good counsel will be weighed and valued accordingly. It was the loss of this kind of respect from some of his former colleagues that seemed to irk Specter most of all, and helped drive him out of the Republican Party (that, and a desire to get reelected).
I believe Specter when he says that he won’t be a rubber stamp for Democratic legislative priorities, so it will be interesting to see whether he becomes a handful for the president on key issues. I have written before about the pitfalls that unified government can pose for presidents, and adding Specter fully into the Democratic mix could raise the stakes for Obama even higher.
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100 Days, But Who's Counting?
I’ll be a guest tomorrow morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange. We’ll assess how the Obama Administration is doing, as the president observes the benchmark of his first 100 days in office. You can listen to the show live at 9 a.m. here (pull-down menu at top), or catch it later here.
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Olive Branch or Fig Leaf?
Last week, I posted an item on House Minority Whip Eric Cantor’s oddly-timed call for greater bipartisanship between the Obama Administration and Republicans in Congress. Now we learn that shortly after the olive branch (or fig leaf, for you skeptics) was extended, Cantor and President Obama actually had a rather blunt exchange at a White House meeting with Republican leaders over which party most deserved the blame for undercutting the best of bipartisan legislative intentions.
Obama reportedly brought the exchange to a close by playing the proverbial remember, I’m the president card, but not before Cantor accepted an offer to provide a specific list of potential spending cuts to the president. I am not especially confident that this exchange will result in a meaningful new burst of bipartisan activity, but the Republicans actually have a reasonably good P.R. opportunity here, if they are able to come up with an interesting, non-boilerplate set of suggestions that Obama is unable to reject out of hand. If they don’t think outside of the ideological box on these cuts, however, then my guess is we’re in for a lot more party-line votes in the coming months.
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Putting Toothpaste Back in the Tube
I noted yesterday that the torture/enhanced interrogation techniques debate could very well swamp the possibility of any legislative bipartisanship for the foreseeable future. And, the announcement today that the Pentagon will release hundreds of photos from various prisoner abuse investigations will likely further increase the partisan bitterness. But partisan conflict is not the only threat to President Obama’s policy agenda. Of equal concern to the president is the potential for fissures to develop within the Democratic Party over how and whether to pursue further investigation into the Bush Administration program.
As a result, you could see the pressure working on Obama this past week, as he got it relentlessly from both the left and the right. Over the past few days, it really started to feel like he was losing control of the issue. As administration officials seem to understand, once these kinds of political conflagrations gain momentum, they typically take on a life of their own. So, I was not surprised to see Obama attempt to regain control yesterday with the help of the Democratic leadership in the Senate.
Whether he can effectively do so, given the emotion that has already been released on both sides of the issue, still remains to be seen. You can apply your favorite well-worn metaphor to the situation President Obama now faces – toothpaste out of the tube, horse out of the barn, genie out of the bottle, or an open Pandora’s Box – as any would be apt to describe what we are now witnessing. How the president handles the issue of torture and enhanced interrogation is rapidly shaping up to be one of the biggest tests of the new administration.
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Bye Bipartisanship
While scanning headlines on the Politico website last night, I was genuinely surprised to come across an item with the title, Cantor Calls for Bipartisanship. My surprise was not simply a function of the fact that it was House Minority Whip Eric Cantor doing the calling, but also a reaction to the idea that bipartisanship is still an operative goal for anyone involved in the policy process at this point. I was under the impression that any pretense of bipartisanship pretty much went out the window with the stimulus package.
In a rare exception, President Obama recently signed into law a major expansion of AmeriCorps and other national service programs, from a bill championed by both Senate Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican Orrin Hatch. But that’s about the only mention of a legitimate bipartisan legislative outcome I’ve come across in some time, which is why the Cantor headline actually startled me.
More typical are the discussions among Democrats about using legislative procedure to essentially bypass Republican opposition on health care legislation. And the intense partisan rancor being generated by the torture/enhanced interrogation techniques debate threatens to swamp the possibility of any bipartisan legislative comity for the foreseeable future. So, Cantor may be correct in his assessment that cutting federal spending is one area for potential bipartisan compromise, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is much in the mood for that anymore.
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NAFTA Never Mind
This is one of those times when you can have a little fun comparing past campaign rhetoric with the policy reality of a new presidential administration. I recently took a look back at a few of my 2008 presidential campaign posts on NAFTA. It was just a little over a year ago that the Democratic candidates were stepping over each other to garner organized labor support by trashing the North American Free Trade Agreement in advance of several key Midwestern primaries.
The Obama campaign was particularly tough on Hillary Clinton, hitting her for her support of the treaty early in the Clinton Administration. Candidate Obama often talked of the need for greater fairness in trade and promised to renegotiate NAFTA, in order improve the treaty’s labor and environmental protections. You may recall that a furor erupted when one of Barack Obama’s economic advisors, Austin Goolsbee, quietly suggested to Canadian officials that the call for renegotiation was mainly political positioning by the candidate.
Well, it now seems like Goolsbee actually wasn’t all that far off in his off-the-record assessment. As reported in the New York Times on Monday, President Obama apparently has no plans to reopen negotiations on NAFTA. The administration will try to improve on the labor and environment side agreements without forcing a renegotiation of the treaty. There may be some legitimate policy reasons for not reopening the core agreement at this time, but this little episode serves as yet another reminder of the difference between campaigning and governing.
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Spring in My Step
I will be away from the website for just a few days. I’ll be back on Wednesday, April 22nd with new content for you.  See you soon. - Dean
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Pawlenty's Party?
During last year’s presidential race, I occasionally posted items on Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. An early supporter of John McCain, Pawlenty was frequently mentioned as a potential running mate for the Republican nominee. But the campaign ultimately decided that a slightly bland governor from the upper Midwest would not bring excitement to the ticket (enter Sarah Palin) sufficient to counter the heat generated by Barack Obama’s candidacy.
In retrospect, it was probably a good career move for Pawlenty that he managed to stay off of the Republican ticket. He has recently emerged as a fairly steady and reasonable voice amidst all of the conservative vitriol currently being directed against the Obama Administration. This has the effect of making Pawlenty increasingly look like a party leader in comparison to some of the other elected officials with whom he shares the national spotlight.
As evidenced by an interview in today’s New York Times, Pawlenty understands that decrying taxes, government spending, and budget deficits without offering an alternative isn’t a winning strategy for the Republican Party. But I was a bit disappointed that Adam Nagourney didn’t press the governor on specifically what that policy agenda might look like. Perhaps Pawlenty doesn’t know yet, but at least he seems to be thinking about it.
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Forget Me Not
As you may have heard, John McCain unintentionally made some news again last night. When asked by Jay Leno to name the future leaders of the Republican Party, McCain mentioned no fewer than five current or former Republican governors, but neglected to include Sarah Palin on the list. McCain wisely noted the perils inherent in this sort of impromptu list-making, as someone significant is inevitably overlooked. But you wouldn’t expect it to be his former vice presidential running mate. As I mentioned last month, McCain was also noncommittal about Palin when asked directly about her prospects in a Meet the Press interview.
I am on the fence about how much to read into this most recent McCain omission.  On the one hand, McCain is clearly no longer in campaign mode, and I don't think he is spending much time thinking about the next generation of Republican leaders. On the other hand, he has been asked about Palin so frequently in recent months that you would think her name would be on the tip of his tongue, even if it is just out of courtesy to his former running mate.
Whether intentional or not, McCain is creating a little breathing room for himself here, making it less likely that he will be boxed into endorsing Palin, should she run for president in 2012. Equally intriguing were last night’s bonus kind words for Mitt Romney, McCain’s former favorite presidential primary punching bag. As I noted recently, Romney seems increasingly well-positioned to be a player in Republican politics going forward.
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Mr. Smith Redux
Here is one for old times’ sake. Former New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith has announced he will seek a return to the U.S. Senate, this time from his new home base in Florida. Last I recall, Smith had moved to the Sunshine State, in order to sell high-end real estate. Given the housing market down there now, I am guessing he will have plenty of time to focus on his campaign. You may remember that Smith left the Republican Party (not conservative enough for him) for a time during the 2000 presidential election, so he could run for president as an independent.
Back in 2000, I took a group of my Dartmouth students to have lunch with Senator Smith, and it was quite an eye-opener for them. He spent the hour talking about strict constructionism, abortion, and taxes, likely the same themes Florida voters can look forward to hearing from him this time around. In case your memory of Smith has faded a bit since his primary loss to John E. Sununu in 2002, you can watch him contemplating a possible Florida Senate run just this past February.  Smith may be the longest of shots, but it sure would make for an entertaining Republican primary if the more moderate Governor Charlie Crist also decides to enter the race.
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Now Promenade Your Partner!
This kind of stuff drives me crazy. I didn’t like it when the Bush Administration used to reinterpret events on a regular basis, and I am disappointed to see the Obama Administration engage in the same sort of revisionism. I am of course referring to the now infamous Saudi bowing incident, and the Obama Administration’s absurd claim that the president did not bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia upon their meeting.
You can watch the clip here, and judge for yourself. Look for King Abdullah to extend his hand to Obama at 53 seconds into the clip. President Obama’s response may have been an awkward, twisty sort of half-bow, and perhaps he felt self-conscious about doing it, but it is clearly a bow to the king. Partisans and political observers can certainly debate the merits of whether Obama should have bowed, but I don’t think the presence of the gesture can be disputed. You may recall we went through a similar political dustup over President Bush’s hand-holding stroll with the king in 2005.
The issue of protocol aside, what is troubling to me is that Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and other administration officials continue to argue that Obama was simply bending over to greet the much shorter king. I had gotten used to the “don’t believe your own eyes” quality of much of the Bush Administration’s public statements, but had hoped the new press operations would take a more transparent approach. This particular episode is not an encouraging sign.
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The San Francisco Treat
I must confess to a good chuckle every time I hear New Hampshire Republican Party chair Gov. John Sununu make reference to the state Democrats’ San Francisco agenda. I understand his broader point that the bills being passed out of the New Hampshire House of Representatives these days, on issues like gay marriage, transgender rights, and medical marijuana, are typically associated with the liberal (or progressive, as they now prefer) wing of the national Democratic Party, which has a strong presence in places like San Francisco.
But the reference feels quaint. It mainly reminds me of my high school years in the 1970s, when New York City and the Bay Area really were viewed as almost mythical meccas of liberal licentiousness, in comparison to the rest of the country (Studio 54 anyone, or perhaps the Dead up in the Haight?). But increased mobility and technological advances have led to such a dispersion of cultural attitudes around the country that I don’t think this particular geographical reference really carries much weight anymore. Pick any city, and you will find these issues being debated in earnest nowadays (and in many small towns, too).
There is actually a serious political point to be made here. I have noted on a number of occasions that the Republican Party is in danger of losing an entire generation of young voters. When Gov. Sununu was selected to head the state party, I wrote that a politician of his vintage might have some trouble branding the party for the next wave of voters. The recurring “San Francisco agenda” reference is a perfect case in point. It may rally some older conservatives to the party’s cause, but I can guarantee it is pretty much lost on anyone under the age of 35.
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Snowed In
It looks like the Republican Party’s team of mavericks won’t be reuniting in the U.S. Senate anytime soon, now that Gov. Sarah Palin has confirmed she will not launch a primary challenge against Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski in 2010. Given the professional and personal difficulties Palin has faced since the Republican ticket lost in November, this sounds like a pretty reasonable decision to me.
Plus, if Palin’s true ambition is the presidency, then the U.S. Senate is not an ideal stepping stone, even with President Obama’s rare elevation to the office directly from the Senate. Since his victory, I have noted on a number of occasions that Palin has a lot of work to do as a candidate, if she is to have a serious shot at the White House. And, I think the verdict is still out on whether she will ever really be up to the task. If she is, then part of that political retooling would benefit from her receding from the political spotlight for a time, as difficult as that may be. A Senate run right now would instead keep the political circus that has surrounded her since last September in town for the foreseeable future.
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All Apologies
In a post on Friday dealing with President Obama’s European trip, I noted that conservatives are likely to find little to celebrate in the tremendous reception both Barack and Michelle Obama received during their overseas travels. In doing so, I mentioned that in recent weeks I have been hearing a drumbeat political narrative from conservatives about Obama’s desire to use the reins of government to take our country in a socialist direction. I predicted the narrative would be ratcheted up a few notches this week, as conservative commentators begin to dissect Obama’s performance in Europe.
Sure enough, a sampling of conservative commentary over the past few days turned up lots of criticism of President Obama’s  European “apologies” tour, and in particular of his willingness to trade a rejection of American exceptionalism (especially of the Bush neoconservative variety) for European adulation and acceptance, yet without any significant new resource commitments from the countries. Along these lines, a recent post by Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic adds a little extra flavor to this issue of the conservative anti-Obama narrative, and tries to put it in the broader context of the Republican struggle to get some traction against the administration’s agenda.
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Stage Craftiness
Over the weekend, I watched and listened to a lot of political analysis aimed as assessing the relative success of President Obama’s weeklong trip to Europe. The consensus was that in terms of diplomatic stagecraft and personal popularity, the Obama visit was a tremendous success, but in terms of policy and resource commitments from the G-20, NATO, and EU partners, the results were a bit of a disappointment. How you weigh the importance of this tradeoff between personality and policy largely determines whether you think the trip has been a success.
For this particular visit, Obama’s first overseas as president, I tend to agree with those who argue that even without significant new policy commitments to show for the effort, the president laid the groundwork for subsequent diplomatic progress.  Given that so much of international diplomacy at the presidential level is inextricably bound up in symbolism and ceremony, it is hard not to view Obama’s image-filled week as a successful one for the administration. If we were already a few years into his first term, then I might take a somewhat less sanguine view of the week’s events. But for now, I think Obama took an important first step in establishing his standing within this large group of world leaders.  What he does with it in the future will be the true test of his administration's diplomatic success or failure.
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European Vacation
One of the themes running through last fall’s presidential election was the idea that a Barack Obama victory would go a long way towards improving our relations with European allies, especially our strained ties with France and Germany.  For those of you fervently hoping that “freedom fries” and impromptu presidential backrubs are a thing of the past, you can take heart in the reception Barack and Michelle Obama received upon their arrival in Strasbourg, France earlier today.
At the same time, it is the nature of today’s polarized partisan politics in America that I also immediately thought of the field day that conservative talk radio will have with all of the European excitement surrounding the Obama visit. Rather than serving as a source of pride, this new warmth in relations will inevitably be interpreted up and down the AM radio dial as symptomatic of President Obama’s flirtation with European nationalism, or even worse, socialism. This particular conservative narrative is one I have heard more frequently in recent days than in any other time in my political memory, but for now it doesn’t appear to be spoiling the big party across the pond.
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Playing Catch with a Mitt
I know there is still a lot of time for circumstances to change before the next presidential election cycle begins, but it sure seems like Mitt Romney is laying the groundwork for another shot at the nomination. You can read more about his latest party headlining gig here. I recall last fall that Romney suggested he would not be likely to try again, but I always assumed those comments were more a function of your typical candidate burnout at the end of a long losing primary slog than of anything else.
You’ll remember that Romney was the favorite punching bag for a number of the other Republican candidates, especially John McCain. But now it seems like minus the constant attacks from his colleagues, Romney is starting to feel like a potential leader of the party again. He is still a big fundraising draw, and he certainly has the resources to carefully lay the organizational groundwork necessary for a run over the next few years.
But there are still a few big questions surrounding his candidacy. In general, it has always seemed to me that candidates get one really good shot at the nomination, and then the party usually moves on to some new faces. Although I can’t find the quote at the moment, I’m pretty sure Romney acknowledged this very point last fall. It’s a function of the intensity of the campaign news cycle that retread candidates often feel like damaged goods to voters. McCain was a bit of an exception, but even he had to wait eight years to try again. Romney may encounter this phenomenon once the next campaign commences, but at this point his party still seems pleased to have him around to raise money.
The other big question is whether Romney will again be slowed by the criticism that he is a “Johnny-come-lately” to social conservatism. This argument dogged him throughout the last campaign, and could very well pose a problem for him again. While the country’s current focus on the economy fits well with Romney’s expertise, the party’s base will inevitably want to talk social issues once the next primary season is underway. In addition, his Mormonism has always been an unspoken wildcard among some religious conservatives. But for now, Romney seems pretty energized to still be in the thick of Republican politics.
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RSVP Regrets Only
I wasn’t surprised to read that Sarah Palin has been replaced by Newt Gingrich as the keynote speaker for the high-profile fundraising dinner to be held by House and Senate Republicans later this spring. I am not sure “replaced” is actually the appropriate word since it is not clear the Alaskan governor ever actually accepted the invitation. This latest drama from the Palin camp is indicative of the odd parallel political universe in which the governor has functioned ever since the November election. Whether due to personal missteps or bad advice from others, Palin seems to be having real difficulty navigating the political space between her newly-stoked national ambition and the local political culture from which she governs Alaska.
Newt actually seems like a reasonable choice for the speaking gig, given the Republican Party’s need to find its way out of the policy wilderness. As I wrote last month, Gingrich has gone to great lengths to recast himself as a conservative policy wonk, and as someone who can help the party regain its programmatic footing. He clearly sees this as a desirable role for himself, especially as a means of maintaining his relevance within the party.
But for whatever influence Gingrich might exert on the Republican agenda over the next four years, I think it will eventually fall to others in the party to put the electoral face on that agenda. And while Palin may currently have the star power among conservatives to bring in big bucks for the party, I am more skeptical than ever that she will be the candidate to whom this big task falls.
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