The Real Significance of Gregg’s Withdrawal

The announcement by New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg that he is withdrawing his nomination to be Secretary of Commerce has set off another round of accusations that the Obama administration has mismanaged the cabinet appointment process. Tonight on the CBS News, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer said the turnabout undoubtedly hurt Obama’s “credibility” as president.  Other critics on both the Left (“This is a huge defeat and embarrassment for the Obama administration” said Democratic pollster Doug Schoen (see further comments here“) and the Right ( “The first however-many days of Barack Obama’s presidency have been a study in amateurism,” according to conservative columnist Kathleen Parker (see source here) are openly questioning the administration’s competence.

I will leave it to the pundits to debate how deeply Obama’s professional reputation will be damaged by this latest Cabinet imbroglio. Suffice to say, I don’t think these nomination controversies will have much political legs. As I argued in an earlier post,  appointment snafus are common to all incoming administrations during the post-Watergate era, where every nominee must navigate the obstacle course created by tax disclosures, conflict of interest requirements and FBI background checks. Keep in mind that in addition to the 15 top-level cabinet positions, presidents are responsible for appointing close to 700 more people at the subcabinet positions of deputy secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary (and their equivalents).  And this doesn’t include the more than 1,000 appointments he is ostensibly responsible for in the lower levels of the federal bureaucracy.  It’s a wonder more appointees aren’t tripped up or withdraw from the process.  It’s all part of the growing pains for any incoming administration, and I find it amusing that so many pundits apparently believed the Obama administration would be less prone to making these mistakes.  Keep in mind that Obama has almost no executive experience and very little political experience at the national level and as a result faces a steeper learning curve than most presidents. (In a later post I hope to provide an analysis comparing Obama’s executive experience at the national level to that of the other modern presidents.)

This is not to say the Gregg withdrawal is not significant. It is, but not for what is says about the competence – or lack thereof – of the Obama vetting machine.  Instead, it is still another reminder that despite Obama’s pledge to bring a new era of bipartisanship to Washington, his election did very little to remove the primary source of partisan polarization that has dominated political proceedings since at least the Reagan era.  In an earlier post I showed a graph documenting the growing divide between the two parties’ ideological leanings in the Senate and the House. That graph is based on an ongoing study by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal of congressional voting dating back to the first Congress in 1789.  Poole and Rosenthal have found that the single most consistent predictor of a partisan divide in Congress is legislators’ views on the role of the government in managing the economy.  That difference is on vivid display now, in the dispute between Republicans and Democrats regarding the composition of the stimulus package.  And it the source (along with control over the 2010 census) that is reportedly at the heart of Gregg’s decision to withdraw his nomination.  In the end, he had a basic ideological difference with Obama on how best to restore economic prosperity.

If the Obama camp is to be faulted, it is for failing to anticipate just how deep the divide is between Republicans and Democrats in Congress regarding what role, if any, the government should play in restoring economic prosperity.  In hindsight, it is easy to see that Gregg would find it difficult to reconcile his own Republican beliefs with the Democratic approach to fixing the economy.  Consider the following table. It lists from most liberal to least liberal all 100 Senators (actually 102 – mid-term Senate replacements were made in Wyoming and Mississippi) serving in the 2007-09, 110th , Congress.  (All data based on Poole-Rosenthal voting records – see source here).  Notice where Obama is located (see bold italicized name) 13 spaces down from the top. This means his Senate voting record for the last congressional session made him the 13th most liberal member of the Senate – and this in a two-year period where he deliberately moved to the ideological middle in order to increase his chances of winning the presidency.  Now scroll down to find Judd Gregg (name bold and italicized) – he’s the 86 th most liberal, or 14th most conservative Senator in the 110th Congress. This means a full 73% of the Senate lies between them, ideologically speaking. You might as well ask a New York Yankee fan to join the Red Sox booster club.

 110 49309 25  WISCONS D FEINGOLD      1.000
 110 29147  6  VERMONT I SANDERS       2.000
 110 14213  1  CONNECT D DODD          3.000
 110 15011 71  CALIFOR D BOXER         4.000
 110 10808  3  MASSACH D KENNEDY  ED   5.500
 110 40704  5  RHODE I D WHITEHOUSE    5.500
 110 14920  3  MASSACH D KERRY  JOHN   7.000
 110  1366 56  WEST VI D BYRD  ROBER   8.000
 110 29389 24  OHIO    D BROWN         9.000
 110 14101 11  DELAWAR D BIDEN         10.000
 110 29373 12  NEW JER D MENENDEZ      11.500
 110 29142  5  RHODE I D REED          11.500
 110 40502 21  ILLINOI D OBAMA         13.500
 110 14914 12  NEW JER D LAUTENBERG    13.500
 110 15021 21  ILLINOI D DURBIN        15.000
 110 14858 13  NEW YOR D SCHUMER       16.000
 110 14230 31  IOWA    D HARKIN        17.000
 110 40105 13  NEW YOR D CLINTON       18.000
 110 14307  6  VERMONT D LEAHY         19.000
 110 15054 65  NEVADA  D REID          21.000
 110 40700 33  MINNESO D KLOBUCHAR     21.000
110 29732 23  MICHIGA D STABENOW      21.000
 110 14400 82  HAWAII  D AKAKA         23.000
110 39310 73  WASHING D CANTWELL      25.000
 110 49308 73  WASHING D MURRAY        25.000
 110 14871 72  OREGON  D WYDEN         25.000
 110 14912 66  NEW MEX D BINGAMAN      27.500
 110 14709 23  MICHIGA D LEVIN  CARL   27.500
 110 15408 52  MARYLAN D CARDIN        29.000
110 15703 25  WISCONS D KOHL          30.000
 110 49300 71  CALIFOR D FEINSTEIN     31.000
 110  4812 82  HAWAII  D INOUYE        32.000
 110 14440 52  MARYLAN D MIKULSKI      33.000
110 14651 43  FLORIDA D NELSON        34.500
 110 15704  1  CONNECT D LIEBERMAN     34.500
 110 40703 14  PENNSYL D CASEY         36.000
 110 40706 40  VIRGINI D WEBB          37.000
 110 14922 56  WEST VI D ROCKEFELLER   38.000
 110 15502 36  NORTH D D CONRAD        39.000
 110 14812 36  NORTH D D DORGAN        40.000
 110 40701 34  MISSOUR D MCCASKILL     41.000
 110 14203 64  MONTANA D BAUCUS        42.500
 110 40702 64  MONTANA D TESTER        42.500
 110 40500 62  COLORAD D SALAZAR       44.000
 110 29305 42  ARKANSA D LINCOLN       45.000
 110 15425 37  SOUTH D D JOHNSON       46.000
 110 40301 42  ARKANSA D PRYOR         47.000
 110 15015 11  DELAWAR D CARPER        48.000
 110 49702 45  LOUISIA D LANDRIEU      49.000
 110 40103 35  NEBRASK D NELSON  BEN   50.000
 110 49901 22  INDIANA D BAYH          51.000
 110 14661  2  MAINE   R SNOWE         52.000
 110 49703  2  MAINE   R COLLINS       53.000
 110 49705 72  OREGON  R SMITH  GORD   54.000
 110 40302 33  MINNESO R COLEMAN       55.000
 110 14910 14  PENNSYL R SPECTER       56.000
 110 14506 22  INDIANA R LUGAR         57.000
 110 49903 24  OHIO    R VOINOVICH     58.000
 110 40300 81  ALASKA  R MURKOWSKI     59.000
 110 12109 81  ALASKA  R STEVENS       60.000
 110 14712 40  VIRGINI R WARNER        61.000
 110 14103 66  NEW MEX R DOMENICI      62.000
 110 14226 31  IOWA    R GRASSLEY      63.000
 110 14852 32  KANSAS  R ROBERTS       64.000
 110 14503 67  UTAH    R HATCH         65.000
 110 49704 35  NEBRASK R HAGEL         66.000
 110 14009 46  MISSISS R COCHRAN       67.000
 110 49307 67  UTAH    R BENNETT       68.000
 110 40501 43  FLORIDA R MARTINEZ      69.000
110 15501 34  MISSOUR R BOND          70.000
 110 40304 54  TENNESS R ALEXANDER     71.000
 110 40705 54  TENNESS R CORKER        72.000
 110 49306 49  TEXAS   R HUTCHISON     73.000
 110 29534 46  MISSISS R WICKER        74.000
 110 29740  4  NEW HAM R SUNUNU        75.000
 110 94659 41  ALABAMA R SHELBY        76.000
110 40303 47  NORTH C R DOLE          77.000
 110 29523 32  KANSAS  R BROWNBACK     78.000
 110 29754 37  SOUTH D R THUNE         79.000
 110 29512 44  GEORGIA R CHAMBLISS     80.000
 110 29909 44  GEORGIA R ISAKSON       81.000
 110 14809 63  IDAHO   R CRAIG         82.000
 110 29345 63  IDAHO   R CRAPO         83.000
 110 14031 46  MISSISS R LOTT          84.000
 110 14921 51  KENTUCK R MCCONNELL     85.000
 110 14826  4  NEW HAM R GREGG         86.000
 110 49700 41  ALABAMA R SESSIONS      87.000
 110 29566 48  SOUTH C R GRAHAM        88.000
 110 40305 49  TEXAS   R CORNYN        89.000
 110 15039 61  ARIZONA R MCCAIN        90.000
110 29918 45  LOUISIA R VITTER        91.000
 110 15406 51  KENTUCK R BUNNING       92.000
 110 29108 62  COLORAD R ALLARD        93.000
 110 15633 68  WYOMING R THOMAS        94.000
 110 29548 47  NORTH C R BURR          95.000
 110 49706 68  WYOMING R ENZI          96.000
 110 40707 68  WYOMING R BARASSO       97.000
 110 29537 65  NEVADA  R ENSIGN        98.000
 110 15429 61  ARIZONA R KYL           99.000
 110 15424 53  OKLAHOM R INHOFE        100.000
110 29555 53  OKLAHOM R COBURN        101.000
 110 29936 48  SOUTH C R DEMINT        102.000

Now keep in mind that in 2008 the Republicans lost 7 Senate seats. The losses included defeats to five incumbents, all of them from the more moderate half of their party wing, including Gordon Humphrey, Norm Coleman (we think!), Ted Stevens, Elizabeth Dole and John Sununu.  In short, the current 111th Senate is likely even more polarized than the previous Senate – and the previous Senate, according to Poole and Rosenthal, was the most ideologically polarized Senate since Reconstruction. Think about it. The last time we had a Senate this polarized, we were coming off a Civil War!

The lesson is clear.  Obama took office proclaiming that change, in the form of bipartisanship, was coming to Washington.  Despite evidence to the contrary, he continues to talk the talk of bipartisanship. He claims that by extending a hand across the partisan divide, he will foster a more cooperative relationship between the parties in the future.  But unless he is willing to walk the walk in the form of adopting Republican policy stances, his efforts at bipartisanship will be just that: words.  And the more he moves to the ideological middle, the more likely the left wing of his party, backed by the netroots, will rise up in fury to attack Obama’s overtures to Republicans.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating because so many Obama supporters are still struggling to break free from the kool-aid induced euphoria that led them to believe Obama’s election meant an end to party bickering.  In their defense, Obama may have believed it as well. But when it comes to legislative politics, Obama’s election did nothing to remove the sources of partisan division in Congress.  In fact, the ideological schism has likely widened as a result of Republican losses. As a result, expect presidential-congressional relations to be the mirror image of what we saw under Bush: rather than a less polarized Congress we are more likely to see a Democratic president working primarily with his own party in the House, and moderating that ideological stance in the Senate only as needed to put together a winning coalition.  It is exactly how Bush legislated.

Did Obama’s election change the congressional landscape?  Dream on, teen queen.


  1. In the grand scheme (from an historical perspective) is this appointment (or lack thereof) more or less damaging than the failed Daschle bid?

  2. Alex, in my view, Gregg’s withdrawal will have far less longterm impact than Daschle’s. The fact that Obama’s team may have mishandled the vetting process in both cases is not very consequential despite the short-term fallout. But I thought Daschle’s expertise on health policy and his knowledge of the Senate would have been incredibly helpful to Obama in putting together health care reform. That’s why I think his loss is so much more damaging to Obama than is the Gregg’s withdrawal.

  3. I agree for the most part. The Republicans, with the possible exception of the few remaining blue-state Senators like Collins, Snowe, and Specter, have nothing to gain from working with this administration. I was surprised Gregg even agreed in the first place (perhaps at the time he thought it would make him appear more moderate in D-trending New Hampshire.)
    However, I think the administration does have incentive to put on a show of bipartisanship, so that the public understands who is refusing to work with who. In the last session, Republicans filibustered more legislation than any previous one, or more accurately, threatened to filibuster. Harry Reid’s decision to simply move on when cloture votes fail, rather than force his opponents to talk for hours on national television to block legislation that the public expected when they swept out the Republicans in 2006, has kept the huge partisan divide in Washington under the rug. Perhaps Obama wishes to make a show of bipartisanship now, so that when it gets ugly, the Republicans will be blamed for refusing to work together. This strategy could just as easily backfire however, if it creates an expectation that Obama will remain above the fray.
    The key will rest in the administrations ability to get Democratic Senators and House members in line, so that they can quickly pass legislation without Republicans. Nancy Pelosi has been reasonably effective. Harry Reid has been miserable. I sure hope the gloves come off soon.

    PS. It’s a big stretch to call Doug Schoen to “the left” of Obama. His major thesis over the last few years has been that Democratic victories are not a mandate for progressive legislation, and the left hates him for it. The real story here is that Schoen is a Hillary supporter still bitter about not having a White House job right now (probably clinging to guns and religion for comfort) and always willing to provide a Lieberman-style quote to the press.

  4. Will, you raise several excellent points. Regarding filibusters, there’s something of a misconception about how they work. Today filibusters rarely involve extended speeches on the floor. Instead, they often refer to other parliamentary maneuvers designed to stall proceedings in the Senate. Consider your scenario: the Senate leadership, anticipating Republican opposition to a bill, tries to invoke cloture and fails. Why not, as you suggest, force the Republicans to take the floor and filibuster, so everyone knows they are gumming up the works? Because that’s not the only way to filibuster. Indeed, in the modern era, it’s far more likely that Republicans would “filibuster” by adding non-germane amendments to the legislation under consideration, or would use other obstructionist tactics. Senators rarely engage in the old-fashioned type of talkathon filibustering popularized by the Jimmy Stewart movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Instead, they are much more likely to use other tactics. That’s why the majority party often tries to invoke cloture even before debate on a bill begins. It’s hard to blame Reid for deciding to compromise when cloture fails.

    There’s a second misconception that has often been raised in the context of the debate over the stimulus bill that relates to your suggestion to let the Republicans filibuster. The reason Democrats need 60 votes to pass the stimulus bill is primarily because under Senate budget rules, any legislation that is going to increase the deficit is subject to a “point of order” – a parliamentary device that basically says “we are breaking the rules here” – unless the Senate opts to waive that rule. To do so requires 60 votes. That’s why Reid needed Republican votes – even if the Republicans didn’t filibuster the stimulus bill, it was still subject to getting stopped by a point of order. In short, leftist bloggers are unfairly pillorying Reid for not allowing Republicans to openly filibuster the stimulus bill, but that wasn’t the only concern. More generally, as you’ll recall when the Senate was controlled by the Republicans and the Democrats proceeded to use the threat of a filibuster to prevent any votes on Bush’s judicial nominees, the filibuster is an equal opportunity tool used with equal effectiveness by Democrats and Republicans; neither party can be blamed for having a monopoly on its use. If I get a chance I’ll dig up the statistics on its use.

    As for going it alone with Democratic votes – you sound alot like the Republican partisans during the Bush administration! As I said: legislative politics today are a mirror image of what occurred under Bush.

    Finally, note that I didn’t say that Schoen was to the “left of Obama”. I said he is a Democratic pollster, and as such on the Left as opposed to the Right of the ideological spectrum. But I could substitute any number of critics on the “Left” who think Obama botched the Gregg appointment. They are, in my view, overstating the impact of his withdrawal.

  5. Matt, this ranking of senators is really helpful. Do you have any idea as to what percent of the electorate is represented by the 41 senators who can thwart the will of the majority (treating split states at 50%)?

    How about your thoughts on the 5 most liberal Republicans and the 5 most conservative Democrats?


  6. Typo of “41” corrected

    Matt, this ranking of senators is really helpful. Do you have any idea as to what percent of the electorate is represented by the 40 senators who can thwart the will of the majority (treating split states at 50%)?

    How about your thoughts on the 5 most liberal Republicans and the 5 most conservative Democrats?


  7. Great question Jack. As you note, because Senate representation is not based on population, and because of Senate procedures that allow 41 Senators to block proceedings, it is possible to argue that a Senators representing only a small proportion of the population can bring Senate proceedings to a halt. Obviously it depends on which Senators are involved, but your point is well taken. Keep in mind, however, that we have chosen not to govern ourselves as a pure democracy where the majority rule, but as a republic with federalism. As long as we believe that states are meaningful political institutions that deserve separate representation, we are going to have instances in which low population states wield disproportionate influence through their Senators, while higher populated states will be underrepresented in the Senate. Of course, under Article V of the Constitution, Senate representation can’t be changed without the state’s consent. So don’t expect small states to give up their voting privileges anytime soon!

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