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Gates and Obama's "Bipartisanship" Problem

While Barack Obama's appointments so far have produced some unhappiness among progressives, and some second-guessing from various quarters, it's nothing compared to the criticism that will erupt if he, as is rumored, keeps Defense Secretary Robert Gates in place.

This is obviously a pretty momentous decision. As Chris Bowers points out, aside from questions of war and peace and Iraq and Afghanistan, DoD is far and away the largest federal agency, with vast spending powers. The direction of DoD is also at the heart of the case for "change" that attracted many progressives to Obama in the first place.

Obama could, of course, try to reduce the sting by limiting Gates to a short tenure, giving way in six months or so perhaps to a deputy close to the new administration and its thinking (e.g., Richard Danzig). But making the appointment strictly transitional would also reduce its utility as a symbolic gesture of continuity and bipartisanship. And in any event, Gates is reportedly balking at any deal that would deny him the right to retain his own circle of high-level staff, which definitely includes people antagonistic to significant change in the Pentagon.

Moreover, on a broader front, if Obama demurs on a reappointment of Gates, he'll need to find another way to redeem his frequent campaign pledge to get beyond partisan gridlock in Washington and govern in a bipartisan, or at least post-partisan, manner.

Some Obama supporters never took this talk seriously, and would just as soon see him forget about including any Republicans in his Cabinet.

One option, borrowed from none other than George W. Bush, would be the Mineta Maneuver (in honor of Bush's first Secretary of Transportation): choosing a member of the opposition party to oversee some lower-priority department that doesn't carry a lot of ideological freight. Another, even more purely symbolic, approach would be to tap a nominal Republican who's already on board Team Obama, like former GOP congressman Jim Leach, or a non-political figure with close Republican connections, such as Jim Jones, who's reportedly slotted for National Security Advisor.

You can certainly make the argument that Obama's post-partisan rhetoric cannot be, or should not be, discharged primarily through Cabinet appointments. Again, there's a recent precedent for this dilemma. Lest we forget, George W. Bush took office claiming to be a "uniter, not a divider," touting his reputation for working with Democrats in Texas, amidst general expectations that the circumstances of his, er, ah, elevation to the presidency might make him interested in reaching across party lines.

As it happens, I wrote a piece back in January 2001 that sought to cut through all the sloppy talk on the subject and analyze ten distinct approaches to "bipartisanship." I predicted, accurately, that Bush would pursue "bipartisanship on the cheap" through symbolic gestures and efforts to pick off a few Democrats to support exactly what he wanted.

That approach is fully available to Barack Obama as well, who certainly has an electoral mandate far beyond anything the beneficiary of Gore v. Bush enjoyed. There is, however, one form of "bipartisanship" that Bush never took seriously, and that is very consistent with everything Barack Obama has said on the subject. Back in 2001, I described it as an "ouside-in" coalition:

This variety, typically used by incoming Presidents during their "honeymoon" period, involves the aggressive, direct stimulation of public opinion to push members of the opposing party, especially those from states or districts where the President is popular, to come across the line.

This is essentially bipartisanship (or if you wish, post-partisanship) from the ground up, which reaches out to rank-and-file Republicans and independents to mobilize support for big national initiatives. I contrasted this with the "inside-out" coalition--often known later as High Broderism--which involves deal-cutting in Washington across party lines.

I raise this distinction partly because it's important in and of itself, and also because it provides the essential context for the decisions Obama makes on appointments. It's one thing to appoint Republicans to positions as a signal that the new administration is interested in a broader agenda of bipartisan deal-cutting in Washington. It's another thing altogether to appoint a diverse team of officials who are all pledged to implement a clear progressive agenda.

It would be helpful if the President-elect were to address this issue clearly in the days and weeks ahead, if only to avoid confusion about the relationship of his appointments to his plans for governing the country.

UPDATE: Jason Zengerle at TNR reports that conservatives are already dismissing a possible Gates appointment as an insufficient indicator of bipartisanship, increasing the possibility that this move won't make much of anybody happy.