Obama’s latest GOP pick, Jim Leach for the National Endowment of the Humanities, proves why his historically large outreach to Republicans is working. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
Sometimes you can do well by doing good. Even in politics. By nominating Republican Congressman John McHugh of New York to be the next Secretary of the Army and former Congressman Jim Leach to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities this week, President Obama continued his courtship of reasonable Republicans and his effort to realign the American political map.
By pruning back the remaining centrist Republicans, the GOP’s increasingly regional isolation is accelerated. This smells like a Rahm Emanuel special.
To date, he’s appointed at least six Republicans to significant positions inside his administration, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and China Ambassador Jon Huntsman. And that’s not counting the successful, if self-interested, swaying of Arlen Specter to cross the Senate aisle.
After the failed nomination of New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg to serve as Commerce secretary, some Beltway insiders were crowing over what they saw as the inevitable failure of Obama’s postpartisan plans. What they didn’t understand is that Obama’s outreach was a matter of principle as well as political expedience. It’s an important part of why Obama’s approval rating among independent voters stands at a sky-high 66%.
These efforts began in earnest during the campaign, when there were 44 high-profile Republicans who crossed party lines to endorse then-Senator Barack Obama for president, compared to just four Democrats who endorsed Senator McCain. The ranks of Obama Republicans—or Obamicans—included former Republican governors, senators, and congressmen, senior Reagan and Bush administration leaders, conservative columnists and radio hosts, neo-con authors and academics, a former publisher of National Review and the founder’s son. Fueled by a centrist rejection of the Bush administration, the movement was both broad and deep and contributed to Obama’s winning moderates and independents as well as 20% of self-described conservatives on Election Day.
And he has followed through—Obama’s cross-aisle appointments dwarf George W. Bush’s retention of Clinton CIA director George Tenet and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Clinton tapped only Maine Republican Senator William Cohen for secretary of Defense in his second term. Obama’s outreach is bearing results with an impressive 30% approval rating from Republicans—more than twice George W. Bush’s 14% approval rating among Democrats the year after he won re-election.
Of course, the political calculus of extending the outreach to appointments is not inconsiderable. By tapping Huntsman, Utah’s governor, as ambassador to China, Obama deftly removed one of the few potential centrist Republican nominees in 2012 from contention. And with the selection of Congressman McHugh, Obama managed to reward a Republican ally of his Afghanistan plan while reducing the Empire State to two lonely GOP congressmen, Pete King and Chris Lee—who might see their districts erased after the 2010 Census. By pruning back the remaining centrist Republicans, the GOP’s increasingly regional isolation is accelerated. This smells like a Rahm Emanuel special.
Obama has some problems. The unprecedented government spending of the Obama administration’s opening months put many Republicans off, and the number of independents has grown from 30% to 39% as both Democrat and Republican affiliation has declined in recent months. Deficit hawks see the gap between the president’s rhetoric of fiscal responsibility and his record to date—following through on promises to pursue entitlement reform could help close that gap. Nonetheless, according to a Gallup poll, 16% of Republicans already say that they are “definitely” or “probably” planning to vote for Obama’s re-election in 2012.
Obama’s postpartisanship is not a pose—it is pragmatic and principled. It reflects an understanding of the American electorates’ increasing impatience with the polarized partisan politics that brought us the red vs. blue analysis of the Bush years. The more ideologically isolated Republican standard-bearers become, the more room Obama will have to seize the center. In the process, he can redraw the American political map by proving that presidents’ don’t have to be held hostage by hyperpartisanship.
Xtra Insight: View Benjamin Sarlin's gallery of the 2012 field
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.