Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the fresh face of "change" in Barack Obama's Washington—Sen. Judd Gregg.
Fair to say that the exuberant students and Bush-weary liberals who mainlined Obama's campaign rhetoric had something other than the craggy New Hampshire senator in mind when they contemplated the Obama revolution. But this dour, bean-counting Republican has embodied what is a noticeable shift in the atmosphere in the capital, one that hints at the potential for genuine change in the way Washington does business.
First Gregg issued an effusive appraisal of Hillary Clinton's candidacy for secretary of state, calling her "an excellent person to carry the message of America around the world." He joined all but two of his Republican colleagues in speedily approving her nomination and seating her within the first full day of the Obama administration, a swiftness that was not at all preordained.
Gregg has also partnered with Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, to propose a bipartisan commission that would craft solutions to the looming meltdown of the federal budget. Their recommendations would be presented to Congress for an up-or-down vote, similar to the military base-closing process. Gregg rejected the opportunity to criticize Obama's nominee for treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, over his failure to pay a portion of his income tax while employed by the International Monetary Fund, and joined nine of his fellow Republicans in voting to confirm Geithner. He was also among a handful of Republicans who voted for release of the second $350 billion in Troubled Asset Recovery Plan, or TARP, money for financial institutions.
Now, rumors abound that Gregg, one of President Bush's staunchest supporters, is under consideration for the still-vacant commerce secretary position in Obama's administration.
Gregg is not alone in eschewing the usual political combat. Then-President Bush advanced the request for the TARP funds at Obama's request, starting the ball rolling on what would be the new administration's first policy win. And Republican Sens. Robert Bennett, Orrin Hatch, and John Ensign, no one's idea of mushy moderates, have each said they thought Geithner's tax issues were not enough to prevent his confirmation. Compare this with 2001 when, in the wake of the disputed presidential election, Democrats went to the barricades to prevent Labor Secretary-designee Linda Chavez's confirmation for providing what turned out to be shelter and cash assistance to an illegal immigrant who was fleeing her abusive husband. In fact, Chavez used her syndicated column to argue that Geithner should be allowed to explain himself during his confirmation hearing before any "search and destroy" mission is launched against him.
Perhaps the most promising sign of a thaw in Washington's partisan Cold War involves the nomination for attorney general of Eric Holder. Holder's candidacy once promised to be ground zero for a refighting of Clinton-era battles over specious pardons and campaign finance violations. While his involvement in each of these has come under scrutiny, the tone has been relatively restrained and appropriate, particularly in comparison to the shrillness of the late 1990s. In fact, Fran Townsend, President Bush's homeland security director, and Louis Freeh, the controversial former FBI director with a famous distaste for President Clinton, both testified glowingly on Holder's behalf. All signs are that Holder will be in place before the end of next week, likely with a majority of Republicans voting to confirm.
There are any number of factors to which the GOP's less strident course may be ascribed. The party is undoubtedly chastened by two straight drubbings in congressional elections and the Obama tidal wave. Less cynically, the stakes of guiding the economy through its worst period since World War II may be causing people on both sides of the aisle to reconsider what is worth fighting over and when. Regardless, Republican receptiveness to the president's masterful courtship efforts has put the ball firmly in the court of congressional Democrats when it comes to fulfilling Obama's pledge to unite the nation.
To be clear, partisan differences are the lifeblood of a thriving democracy. The tensions they create can sharpen both parties, elucidate important ideological differences, and improve the final legislation that emerges from debate. Those who mourn the bygone age of nonpartisanship are prisoner to a romanticized history that sets an unattainable, even undesirable, standard for evaluating the quality of today's political discourse.