Happy New Year 2009
With a riveting and historic election cycle now finally behind us, I want to thank you all for making 2008 a remarkable first full year for NH Political Capital. And, I wish you all a safe and happy new year. To celebrate in appropriate fashion, I will be away from the website for just a few days. But I will be back on Monday, January 5th, to kick off a new year of giving you the best political analysis and commentary I can provide. So stay tuned, as there is much more to come in 2009. Happy New Year. -Dean
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That's a Wrap
You can catch me on Sunday morning as a guest on WMUR-TV’s Close Up (Ch. 9, 10 a.m.). We’ll be discussing the biggest state and national political stories of 2008, and taking a first look at who and what to watch in 2009.
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Camp Aloha
Last week’s crazy winter weather forced me to spend some quality time in various airports up and down the East Coast. While sitting around my departure gates, I had the opportunity to take in endlessly repeated scenes of the Obama family vacation in Hawaii on the overhead television monitors. In addition to making me feel even worse about the nasty weather outside, this got me thinking about whether Hawaii would become the vacation White House of choice for the Obama Administration.  Bush 41 had the family retreat on Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport. Bill Clinton usually dropped in on friends on Martha’s Vineyard, and President Bush has his brush-laden ranch in Crawford, Texas.
While it’s a long haul from Washington, D.C. to Hawaii, when you are flying Air Force One, it’s probably not a bad trip. I’m guessing the traveling White House press corps would find spending time in Hawaii a lot more amenable than Crawford, but perhaps the cost would be prohibitive for some smaller media outlets. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hawaii gets the nod, and it may even get a few infrastructure upgrades as a bonus. If you have other suggestions for the Obama vacation compound, send them my way.
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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays 2008
I will be away from the website next week, in order to celebrate Christmas with family and friends. I will be back on Monday, December 29th, with new content for you. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. -Dean
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Party Favor
Is Secretary of Transportation becoming the official placeholder Cabinet post for a member of the opposition party in a new presidential administration? President Bush appointed Democratic Congressman Norman Mineta of California to the position in 2001. Mineta turned out to be the only member of the opposition party to serve in President Bush’s Cabinet. Now Barack Obama is poised to appoint retiring Republican Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois to the same position. If we go with the operating assumption that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is also a Republican, which he sort of confirmed at a press conference earlier this month, then Obama doubles Bush’s party favor to two Republicans in his Cabinet.
I am tempted to argue that both Bush and Obama chose the Transportation Department as a fairly safe political sinecure for stashing a largely symbolic “bipartisan” appointment to their administrations, although Obama's appointment of Gates argues against pure symbolism. After all, how frequently did we hear from Norman Mineta during his more than five years in the position (a record for that executive department)? But if the massive ($775 billion to perhaps $1 trillion) fiscal stimulus package Obama is rumored to be preparing channels a lot of federal dollars to the states for transportation infrastructure improvements, then the position may enjoy a bit more cachet than it has in the past, and even come to play an integral role in the country's economic recovery.
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What a Drag
It sure feels like the Gov. Blagojevich saga is starting to be a drag on Barack Obama and his presidential transition. From a legal perspective, the drama is actually just beginning, and today’s Illinois Supreme Court decision rejecting the state Attorney General’s attempt to push the governor aside won’t help expedite matters. Obama can take some comfort in new polling data suggesting the scandal hasn’t adversely affected the generally favorable view of his transition, but there is nothing like rampant media speculation and the constant drip, drip, drip of new information leaking out to step on the Obama team’s ability to control its daily message.
Obama has said he would like to clear up any questions regarding involvement by him or his staff, but has been asked by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to hold off for now. My guess is that position won’t be politically tenable for much longer. In order to put the speculation to rest, Obama needs one long, no-holds-barred press conference, in which he doesn’t defer answering any questions about what his (and his staff’s) intentions were regarding appointment of his Senate replacement, and how they went about realizing them. Without this kind of transparency, we will likely still be talking about Blagojevich and Obama in tandem, come January 20th.
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Turf War
An interesting piece at Politico.com today reports on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempts to establish some institutional boundaries between the Democratically-controlled Congress and the incoming Obama Administration. I wish her luck with that endeavor. It is true that out on the campaign trail Barack Obama occasionally spoke of the need to establish a new equilibrium in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. But the history of the modern presidency is one of inexorably expanding presidential prerogative, and the Bush Administration certainly did its part to accelerate the process like never before.
While running for office, presidential candidates often profess the need to roll back the institutional overreach of the incumbent administration. But once in office, they typically find their executive powers are either just about right for the tasks at hand, or need to be augmented even further. Dick Cheney recently commented that he thought the Obama Administration would be unlikely to roll back the scope of its executive authority anytime soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to be correct in that assumption.
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McCain Hedges on Palin
If your power came back on over the weekend, perhaps you caught the interesting little exchange between George Stephanopoulos and John McCain on This Week, at the very end of McCain’s first Sunday interview since the election. Stephanopoulos asked McCain whether Gov. Sarah Palin could count on his support, should she run for president in the future. McCain was caught sufficiently off guard by the question to actually begin his response with the words, “Oh, no.” He then went on to give a less than satisfying answer about all of the talented young governors in the Republican Party, and the likelihood that one of them would be the party’s nominee in the future.
Stephanopoulos was very shrewd in his wording of the question. I have heard McCain asked many times whether he has any regrets about his choice of Palin as his running mate. He usually gives a standard reply about how exciting she was on the campaign trail, and how she electrified the conservative base of the party. But I have never heard McCain asked directly about whether he would support her for president in a Republican primary contest. I found it interesting that McCain didn’t say he would remain neutral, only that he wasn’t prepared to weigh in on a potential Palin candidacy this early in a new electoral cycle.
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Ice Capades
Those of you logging in from outside of New England may not be aware that New Hampshire has been walloped by a massive ice storm over the past 24 hours. While I’m lucky to be back up on the grid, several hundred thousand homes and businesses remain without power, and many will likely be in the dark for two or three more days. Gov. Lynch has declared a state of emergency to deal with the record power outages and associated damage from the ice, sleet and freezing rain.
Provided the power stays on (the wind is now picking up), I will use the weekend to get back up to speed on all things political, and will be back posting on Monday. Stay warm and dry. -Dean
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A Politician's No?
It occurred to me shortly after I posted yesterday, that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s no to a presidential run in 2012 could simply have been the standard politician’s no, the kind typically offered to divert attention from one’s true interest and ambition. In fact, an update to the linked item in the original post suggests that Jindal subsequently tried to create a bit of wiggle room in his otherwise definitive answer.
But in this instance, my bet is that Jindal’s no really means no. He was politically shrewd enough to promptly remove himself from consideration as John McCain’s running mate, as soon as it became clear he was a serious frontrunner for the slot. And, unlike Sarah Palin, Jindal does not appear to be in a rush to meet his political future. Given the scope of Barack Obama’s grassroots organization and fundraising apparatus, Jindal knows that any Republican challenger will face a daunting task in trying to unseat Obama in 2012, provided he has a reasonably successful first term.
In contrast, 2016 could be a wide-open contest in both parties. While it is conceivable that Vice President-elect Joe Biden could run for president at that time, he will be just shy of his 70th birthday on Election Day, and (having already run for president twice and lost) may very well decide to step aside in favor of a younger Democratic nominee. Provided Jindal is reelected in 2011 and has a successful second term as Louisiana’s governor, he would be well positioned for a presidential run. So that is why my original post seemed to implicitly take Jindal’s no at face value.
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Not the Only Governor Making News
With the wall-to-wall coverage of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s U.S. Senate seat-for-sale shenanigans, you may have missed this little item reporting that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has taken himself out of the running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Jindal is now two for two, having previously removed himself from consideration as a potential running mate for John McCain, during the 2008 campaign.
Some Republican political elites had hoped that as a potential presidential nominee, Jindal would put a more youthful and diverse face on the party’s national ticket, but they will now have to wait a while longer. Given that Jindal is only 37, he certainly has no reason to rush his political future. He will likely choose his next electoral steps carefully, beginning with a reelection bid in 2011. My guess is that this is only the first of many denials of interest Jindal will have to issue over the next few years. But the fact that he felt the need to do so for 2012 at this early date suggests to me just how permanent the permanent campaign has become.
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Saved By Sununu?
It sounds like former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu is about to take over the reins of the state’s Republican Party. I recently wrote about the challenges facing the party after significant losses in the past two elections for the Portsmouth Herald. You can read the column here.
The election of Sununu, Sr. will help the state Republican Party in two respects, but is potentially problematic in two other ways. On the upside, Sununu seems hell-bent on single-mindedly refocusing the party’s message on fiscal policy, which is more likely to resonate with voters here than the preoccupation with social conservatism that has shrunken the party’s ranks nationally. And, although Sununu is not known for his warm and fuzzy personality, he does have the political stature within his party to address the increasingly public personality clashes and factionalism which have hampered its organizational capabilities in recent years.
On the downside, it is not clear how Sununu, now two decades removed from politics, can help the party improve its standing with the new generation of younger voters who have flocked to the Democratic Party, and who are particularly attracted to the technology-driven nature of Barack Obama's new grassroots paradigm. Perhaps others will help Sununu ramp up the party’s efforts in this crucial area of organizational outreach. Also, Sununu has already come out swinging with an aggressive partisan tone claiming that, “Democrats are ruining New Hampshire,” and that Gov. John Lynch is, “the worst governor the state of New Hampshire has ever had.” While this kind of partisan rhetoric will no doubt help Sununu rally Republicans, I don’t know that it will necessarily win the party greater influence with moderates and independents, many of whom supported Lynch and who are typically turned off by bitter partisanship.
So, Sununu may very well be able to pull the state’s Republican Party together in short order, which is a necessary first step, but it remains to be seen just how he will go about making it more competitive with an increasingly powerful, technically savvy, and well-organized state Democratic Party.
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The Perils of Pragmatism
An interesting article on Politico.com today details liberal concerns over Barack Obama’s cabinet appointments and shifting policy positions. My suggestion would be to let the guy actually get into office before crying foul. A year’s worth of policy outcomes would be a much more accurate measure of how Obama intends to govern than something static like the number of identifiable progressives currently included in his partially completed bureaucratic apparatus. Given the deepening economic crisis, and significant Democratic majorities in Congress, Obama will have an unparalleled opportunity to pursue progressive policy goals as part of his agenda.
But over the course of the campaign, Obama also promised to govern for all Americans in a post-partisan fashion. This, by definition, will require him to make some concessions to both the ideological center and right, and indeed we have already heard much talk of the political pragmatism reflected in his appointments. While some liberals will continue to take issue with what they see as the overly generous scope of those concessions, it is still too early to gauge whether their role as active stakeholders in the Obama Administration is being undercut as a result. I understand the desire of some activists to raise a warning flag right now, but I think most will wait to see what actually happens in 2009.
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Let's Be Frank
You may have caught yesterday’s Associated Press item quoting several congressional Democrats (especially Congressman Barney Frank) as criticizing Barack Obama for not being more actively involved in the various federal bailout activities underway on Capitol Hill. In theory, Obama could use his press briefing outpost at the Chicago Hilton and Towers to more forcefully state his preferences on issues like how and whether to fund the auto industry bailout, as a sort of warm-up for ascending to the presidential bully pulpit. He could also hop on his cell phone to engage in the time-honored practice of jawboning key legislators into reaching some sort of compromise (provided they don’t hang up on him first). But given that he has resigned his U.S. Senate seat and won’t be inaugurated as the 44th president for another 46 days, there are real structural limitations on what he actually can do in the interim.
Obama has already moved his transition along faster and has been more visible than any president-elect in memory. He has also been careful to respect the constitutional reality that George W. Bush is still our sitting president. Even if Obama were to now hop on a plane for Washington, in order to personally interject himself into the negotiations, it is not clear to me that the mess could be cleaned up any more quickly before legislating comes to a screeching halt for the holidays. With a lame duck president and legislature, Obama is better off focusing on having his own stimulus package and any associated bailout measures lined up for passage in January and ready for his signature on the first day in office. It is really up to President Bush and the current Congress to figure out how to keep the various faltering industries and markets afloat until that day.
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Policy Goes High-Tech
In a post earlier this week, I commented on Barack Obama’s pairing of an email fundraising appeal to supporters with the rollout of his national security team. The upshot of the post was my suggestion that Obama’s groundbreaking use of web technology for grassroots organization, which was so effective during the presidential campaign, would no doubt continue once he was in office. While the national security email underscored the fundraising side of the equation, I speculated that the Obama Administration would also use the marriage of technology and the grassroots to build support for its policy initiatives.
While I didn’t have a specific policy area in mind when I wrote the earlier item, an article in today’s Washington Post provides a perfect example of how the incoming administration will undertake this sort of outreach in the field of health care policy. While the need for presidents to rally public support for big ticket policy initiatives is nothing new, look for the Obama Administration to usher in a whole new high-tech way of undertaking this crucial political task.
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Governor Outta Here!
If you followed the presidential election closely, you probably got the sense that serving as the chief executive of one of our fifty states is political gold. The position of governor is typically depicted in campaigns as being near the pinnacle of the elective office hierarchy, just a step below the ever elusive presidency. Yet, every four years it seems like some governors just can’t wait to leave their states behind, in order to serve the newly elected administration in some capacity. This election cycle all bets were on New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as the governor most likely to jump ship. From the moment he entered the presidential race in January of 2007, Richardson seemed to be chomping at the bit to get back to Washington. Now he has finally gotten his return ticket punched by Barack Obama, as his newly nominated secretary of commerce.
Most of the speculation during the presidential primaries centered on Richardson angling for the vice presidency or secretary of state, but since neither of those was offered by Obama, he seems willing to settle for a post that is not usually viewed as a first tier cabinet appointment. Still, it accomplishes the goal of returning him to Washington, where Richardson has spent most of the past 25 years, first as a U.S. Congressman, and then as U.N. Ambassador and Energy Secretary in the Clinton Administration. And, Richardson will no doubt find a way to use his extensive experience in matters of trade and diplomacy, and his big personality, to elbow his way into Obama’s circle of key advisers.
I got to experience all of this for myself early in the presidential primary cycle, when I met Richardson in the spring of 2007. He spent most of the event regaling the crowd with stories of his personal encounters with various eccentric world leaders, and I even got to experience firsthand that most revered of political gestures from him, the combination handshake and backslap. After watching Richardson work the room that day, I have no doubt he will make an excellent booster for America’s goods and services. But, like Obama, I was disappointed to see he has given up the High Plains Drifter look by shaving his beard, the surest sign that Richardson has already left the Land of Enchantment behind for the Land of Bureaucracy.
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Funding the Permanent Campaign
I recently posted an item on the idea of the permanent campaign, so I was interested to read that Barack Obama used the occasion of his national security team rollout yesterday to send out another fundraising email to his supporters. He apparently sent out a similar request following the introduction of his economic team last week. Any private money raised through these solicitations would be used to supplement the $6.3 million in federal dollars Obama automatically receives to fund his presidential transition.
Obama is not the first president to raise money for his presidential transition. But given his stunning fundraising success during the campaign, and the huge donor email list amassed along with it, we will probably see Obama tap into his grassroots network of supporters like no previous president in history. Whether to raise money for the presidential transition (and eventually reelection), or to mobilize public support around particular policy positions, the Obama Administration is likely to take the permanent campaign to a whole new level. And, Republicans looking toward 2010 and 2012 may find themselves with some serious organizational ground to make up.
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Altered State
How surreal was Barack Obama’s official national security team unveiling this morning? I must say that after spending almost two years watching Obama and Hillary Clinton ridicule each other’s foreign policy/national security credentials on a daily basis, it was remarkable to hear Senator Clinton talk about how honored she was to join the Obama Administration as Secretary of State. It wasn’t all that long ago, before the current economic crisis and military success of the Surge in Iraq, that Obama’s principal claim to the Democratic nomination was that he had the judgment to oppose the Iraq War, whereas Clinton did not. Yet there they both were this morning in a joint appearance completely devoid of the campaign theatrics we had previously come to expect from their encounters.
I understand all of the reasons given for why Clinton could be an excellent Secretary of State, and that may very well turn out to be the case. But the whole kabuki of this morning still made me smile, particularly as several reporters tried to rehash the duo’s old battles in the Q&A. In response, Obama spoke of how differences get magnified in the heat of the campaign season, and then wisely focused instead on their shared vision. It is true that politicians play predictably adversarial roles during the campaign, ones which are often quite different than those they are expected to fill when governing. As a friend pointed out to me shortly after the press conference, this transformation in the relationship between Obama and Clinton really began back around the time of the Democratic convention in August. What we are seeing now is a cementing of those new governing roles.
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