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The Right Man at Commerce By: Andrew Cline
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 05, 2009

Announcing his selection of New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg for secretary of commerce this week, President Barack Obama said Gregg will “be an outstanding addition to the depth and experience of my economic team, a trusted voice in my Cabinet.” The question for conservatives and for the country is, how trusted?

If President Obama truly listens to Sen. Gregg and takes his advice, we are likely to get a stimulus package much better for the country than the one being considered in the Senate this week, as well as significantly better economic recovery policies down the road. However, if he merely attempts to use Gregg as a salesman to pitch the administration’s plans to Republicans in Congress, that will be a problem for everyone.

The beauty of this selection is that Gregg is a man who will not be the slightest bit shy about speaking his mind to the president. He will actively attempt to shape administration economic policy for the better. Still, Republicans are rightly wary of losing Sen. Gregg’s voice in the Senate. He has played a significant role in improving some of the most important legislation of the Bush administration. He was a key advocate of more tax cuts and lower spending, having to fight not only Democrats but also, from time to time, President Bush. But what Republicans lose in the Senate they gain in the White House. That trade-off might well pay off.

When it comes to economic policy, Republicans now have an advocate inside the White House, and one who has respect among Democrats and the ear of the president. That is no small thing. We saw in the Democratic presidential primary last year what political pressure did to supposedly fiscally conservative Bill Richardson, Obama’s initial commerce pick. He went from advocating tax cuts and mocking the far-Left wing of his party to parroting everything Barack Obama said. Richardson would have been an ineffective advocate for low taxes and restrained spending within the new administration. No Democrat would make the case for sound economic policies as well as Sen. Gregg will, and no other Republican would do it as well while being palatable to Democrats.

When President Obama began talking with Sen. Gregg about the commerce position, Gregg made it clear right away that he would not take the job unless New Hampshire’s Democratic Gov. John Lynch named a Republican to replace him. That’s a good early sign. Right off the bat, Gregg stood firm on a matter of great importance to his party. If he would risk losing a Cabinet position on principle, he certainly will not be reluctant to press the president for improvements in administration economic policy.

Gregg can be counted on to push the Obama administration to craft a truly simulative economic recovery plan. He also can be counted on to relay to the president what such a plan must include if it is going to win the support of Republicans in Congress and nationwide. There is no question that the president will send Judd Gregg to Capitol Hill to sell the administration’s plan. But there is good reason to believe it will be a much better plan than it would be were Gregg not commerce secretary. The only reason for the administration’s recovery policies not to get better as a result of this selection would be the president’s refusal to listen to Judd Gregg.

As for the Senate, Republicans do lose something in this deal for the next two years. Gregg’s replacement, J. Bonnie Newman, already has indicated that she does not come from quite the same place in the party that Judd Gregg does. Newman was an assistant secretary of commerce under Ronald Reagan and was Judd Gregg’s chief of staff when he was a U.S. representative from New Hampshire’s 1st District. But the Lawrence, Massachusetts, native made clear when she was presented by Gov. Lynch on Tuesday that she is a moderate Republican, or as she phrased it, “a reasonable Republican.”

The first question she got was from the Associated Press reporter, who asked if she considered herself pro-choice or pro-life. Newman wouldn’t answer. Her non-response is telling. A look at her FEC record shows that the only candidates for Congress from outside New Hampshire she has ever given money to are pro-choicers Olympia Snowe and Greg Walden. She supported pro-choice California Gov. Pete Wilson for president back in the mid-1990s.That means that Republicans would lose a solid pro-life vote in the Senate. Newman also said that her number one issue will be education. She has been a career university administrator, so that is hardly surprising, but it certainly means a different vote than Judd Gregg would deliver on issues related to federal education spending.

Newman refused to get into policy details at Tuesday’s press conference, so I asked why she chose to join and become active in the Republican Party. Her immediate response was that she was inspired by former New Hampshire Gov. Walter Peterson. He was the liberal Republican governor whose openness to new taxes led to the election of conservative Mel Thomson in 1972. Thomson gave New Hampshire the phrase "Ax the tax" and solidified political opposition to broad-based taxes such as a sales or income tax. If Walter Peterson is Bonnie Newman’s inspiration -- and she says he still is -- then she is not going to be nearly as conservative as Judd Gregg is. Conservatives have to hope that Gregg’s influence in the Cabinet will be more consequential than Newman’s votes in the Senate.

And yet it is possible that by vacating his seat now Gregg sets up Republicans for a sweep of major offices in New Hampshire in 2010. Second District U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, a liberal Democrat who has voted 98 percent of the time with Nancy Pelosi, will announce later this week that he intends to seek Gregg’s Senate seat. I contacted the office of 1st District Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a liberal Democrat who has also voted with Nancy Pelosi 98 percent of the time, to ask if that meant she would rule out running for Gregg’s seat as well. She said only that it’s early and she is busy working for the people of the state and the country.

What does this mean? It means that Gregg’s absence has already cleared one of New Hampshire’s House seats and might clear both of them. That gives Republicans two, and possibly three, open seats to run for in 2010, which is likely to be a good year for Republicans.

But that isn’t all. Gov. John Lynch, the immensely popular Democratic governor, will not run for Gregg’s Senate seat. It is not clear that he will run for governor again, either. The state faces a $300 million budget deficit this year and an estimated deficit of $500 million in the next two-year budget. If Lynch brings the budget into the black without instituting a broad-based tax, as he has promised to do, he will have nothing left to achieve in a fourth term, other than reforming the way New Hampshire funds public education. He already tried that and failed, so that will not be a very strong reason for him to stay. I’m not sure why he would stick around instead of retiring on top. If he fails to balance the budget without major tax increases or new taxes, he will surely draw a tough Republican challenge (something he has yet to face) and enter the 2010 election severely weakened.

I already have word of two strongly conservative Republicans hoping to run for Congress, one in each of the House seats, in 2010. If a strong candidate such as former Sen. John Sununu, who has not taken a private sector job since losing his seat last fall, runs for Senate, the GOP will have its strongest slate of candidates for federal office in New Hampshire in years. And that can help draw a serious Republican gubernatorial candidate for the first time in six years.

In the short term, conservatives get a weaker vote in the Senate but a strong advocate in the White House. In the long term, Gregg’s move to commerce probably improves their chances of putting New Hampshire back in the red column in 2010, at least as far as federal offices go. For Republicans, that’s not a bad deal.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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