The Cold Calculations of Judd Gregg

A few months ago, Judd Gregg volunteered himself as symbol of Republican cooperation with the incoming Democratic president, offering to leave the Senate for an unglamorous cabinet post in the Obama administration.

The new president signed off on the idea and, on Feb. 3, formally named Gregg as his nominee for Commerce secretary.  Gregg heaped thanks and praise on Obama, and saluted his “bold and aggressive, effective and comprehensive plan for how we can get this country moving.” Back in New Hampshire, the Democratic governor picked a Republican, a former Gregg aide named Bonnie Newman, to replace him for the balance of his Senate term, due to expire at the end of 2010. Then, things got funny.

Just over a week after he was picked, Gregg abruptly backed out, citing “irresolvable conflicts” with the administration, and returned to the Senate (in the process ending Newman’s brief political career). Now, three months after abandoning his G.O.P. Senate brethren for the enemies’ camp, Gregg has somehow emerged as a bigger star within the party than he ever was before, assuming a leading and highly public role in attacking

Obama’s agenda and prompting entreaties from his colleagues that he rethink his decision not to seek a fourth term in 2010.

“It’s coming from different people, including some in the leadership. They’ve got nothing else to say. It’s like saying, ‘Good morning.’ They don’t want me to retire,” Gregg told CQ this week.

For now, Gregg is saying that he’s content to stick with his retirement plans. But a cynic could easily accuse him of executing a carefully planned strategy, hatched when he gave up the Commerce gig in February, to maneuver himself into position to run again in 2010—and to make it appear that he was begged to do so by his colleagues and his constituents.

First, just consider the damage that Gregg did to himself within the Republican Party by flirting with Obama earlier this year. His fellow G.O.P. senators, their numbers already decimated by the 2006 and 2008 elections, surely weren’t pleased that he chose working for a Democratic president (and that he, in fact, had pushed for the job) over hanging on to his safe Senate seat in 2010—a seat that, without Gregg in it, would be well within reach for the Democrats.

More importantly, conservative leaders and activists regarded his move as a form of treason—“a slap in the face to Republicans,” as the American Spectator put it. Teaming up with Obama would destroy any future electoral aspirations for Gregg, at least as a Republican.

Of course, all of this Republican enmity didn’t matter to Gregg in early February, since he had no intention of ever running for office again. The son of a former New Hampshire governor, he had already served four years in the U.S. House, two terms as governor, and 16 years in the U.S. Senate. The appointment to head a low-visibility cabinet department would be a nice career-capper for the 62-year-old Gregg, a dose of extra prestige within Washington and a chance to carry the title “Mr. Secretary” for the rest of his life. If he had to tick off a few Republicans in the process, so be it.

But when he backed out, suddenly it mattered very much. He said at the time that, while he was returning to the Senate, he would “probably not” be a candidate again in 2010—a very equivocal answer by Washington standards. The idea of running in ’10, or at least preserving the option of running again, seemed to be on his mind.

That would explain his conduct since then. Instead of quietly retreating to the Senate, Gregg, never much of a rabble-rouser, has led the G.O.P. charge against the president he once wanted to serve. As Obama urged Senate Democrats to use the “reconciliation” process to pass health care, Gregg cried that this would be akin to “running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River.” (Never mind that Gregg had taken a much more favorable position on reconciliation in the Bush years.) He has relentlessly attacked Obama’s budget, deriding it as “a clear and present danger” to the next generation of Americans. And he’s made sure to air his withering critiques on the same conservative airwaves where, just a few months ago, he was regarded as disloyal “RINO.”

All of this is particularly jarring when you consider how mild-mannered Gregg was before his fling with Obama. It’s hard not to conclude that he’s bending over backward to make the right forget all about the Commerce affair to make himself an indispensable member of their team. And it’s even harder not to conclude that he’s doing this to shore up his Republican credentials for 2010. Otherwise, why bother?

The other problem caused by Gregg’s dalliance with Obama involved public relations. By seeking the job, accepting it with fanfare and then suddenly running away, he looked silly, and worse. If a ’10 campaign was in his thoughts when he quit as the Commerce nominee, he certainly couldn’t say it; the reaction from the press and voters back home would have been devastatingly cynical. Better, then, to, feign disinterest in ’10, let the whole Commerce matter fade from memory, and then, months later, make it seem as if he’s been reluctantly drafted into the campaign by his party and his constituents. (It helps, as Gregg did with CQ this week, to remind the press how everyone is demanding that you run.)

This week, before the CQ story appeared, a new University of New Hampshire poll found that Gregg remains the most popular member of the state’s Congressional delegation, with a 57 percent favorable score. He also leads Representative Paul Hodes, the likely Democratic Senate candidate next year, by 16 points in a head-to-head matchup. By comparison, former Senator John Sununu, a prospective candidate if Gregg doesn’t run, only leads Hodes by 5 points.

And so now Senate Republicans have good reason to plead with Gregg to run next year. And he can claim that the public wants him to stay, too. And, thanks to his relentless Obama-bashing, he will not be at risk for any kind of intraparty challenge; he has solidified his G.O.P. credentials.

Who knows—maybe Gregg will stay retired. But if running again has been his plan, he couldn’t have handled the last four months any better. 

The Cold Calculations of Judd Gregg