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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Republicans

In a move that places yet another dent in conservative claims that Barack Obama is a hyper-partisan extremist who was lying about bipartisanship during the campaign, the President announced today that he was tapping New York Republican congressman John McHugh to serve as Secretary of the Army. With two other GOPers in his Cabinet (Gates and LaHood), and another recently agreeing to become Ambassador to China (Huntsman), you have to start wondering why so many prominent Republicans are agreeing to join the administration of this Democrat Socialist.
Political junkies are already speculating about the special election to fill McHugh’s House seat; his historically Republican district was carried comfortably by Obama last year.
But in the meantime, it is interesting that Obama is outdoing most of his predecessors in reaching out to the opposition party for high appointments, inside and outside the Cabinet.
Bush 43 had his one token Democrat, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (he publicly touted Sen. John Breaux as his personal favorite for Energy Secretary, but that’s probably because he wanted to flatter him for his help in the Senate).
Clinton had Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, and another GOPer, David Gergen, served as his chief of staff for a while.
Bush 41 had no prominent Democrats in his administration. Reagan had a very nominal Democrat, arch-conservative Bill Bennett, as Education Secretary, and another, Jeane Kirkpatrick, as UN ambassador. Carter had a sort-of Republican, Energy Secretary Jim Schlesinger. I won’t go through the whole modern list, but Ford had one Democrat in his Cabinet, as did Nixon (the soon-to-be Republican John Connally); Kennedy and Johnson had two, though one, Defense Secretary Robert McNamera was very nominally Republican.
Democrats nervous about Obama’s Republicans at the Pentagon should remember that FDR picked Republicans for both of his military cabinet positions, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. And actually, two other famously progressive figures, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and Agriculture Secretary (and later vice-president) Henry Wallace, were nominally Republican upon joining Roosevelt’s Cabinet, though both endorsed FDR in 1932.
What makes Obama’s GOP appointments significant is that they are occurring in an era of extraordinary partisan and ideological polarization; none of his Republicans have been nominal types or endorsed his candidacy last year; one of them, Jon Huntsman, was reportedly getting ready to run against Obama in 2012.
Nobody knows, of course, whether any of these appointees will come out of the Obama administration as Republicans after listening to their party-mates apply every term of abuse in the English language to their boss and their administration’s policies day in and day out so long as they serve. If any of them do flip, it will serve as a nice symbol of Obama’s efforts to build a majority coalition on the foundation of GOP ruins.

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