Progress vs. process

Republicans were not at all pleased yesterday when President Obama used a recess appointment to make Richard Cordray the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But as Felicia Sonmez noted, the fight leaves GOP officials in the unpleasant role of fighting over process, while Democrats work on policy.

The problem for Republicans is that while they’re in the right when it comes to Democrats’ about-face on recess appointments, they face two big roadblocks: the intricacies of procedural arguments often fail to resonate with the public, and Congress’s approval rating remains mired in the single digits.

The White House, meanwhile, can make the argument that it is installing Cordray to make good on a promise of financial regulatory reform. (There’s also the challenge for Republicans that part of the CFPB’s role is to oversee non-bank institutions such as payday lenders and debt collectors — a category of lenders that might be particularly hard for Republicans to cast as “job creators” who are burdened by overregulation.)

This is entirely right and important on both counts. On the policy vs. process angle, the Democratic message comes down to this: “We’re principally concerned with protections for middle-class families and American consumers, not procedural minutiae in Washington.” The Republican message, meanwhile, is this: “We’re principally concerned with the administration honoring recent traditions on pro-forma sessions and the technical definition of ‘recess,’ following Senate cloture votes.”

Which side of that divide do you suppose has the stronger hand?

But Sonmez’s parenthetical point is just as interesting. When Republicans — both in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail — went berserk yesterday in response to the White House’s move, they were also taking a firm stand against consumers’ interests.

When Mitt Romney blasted the president for “Chicago-style politics at its worst,” it offered Obama for America Press Secretary Ben LaBolt the opportunity to say exactly what he wanted to say: “By opposing the appointment of Richard Cordray to run the first-ever consumer watchdog bureau, Mitt Romney today stood with predatory lenders and Republicans in Congress over the middle class. He doubled down on his promise to eliminate the Wall Street watchdog and allow Wall Street to write its own rules again, leaving consumers vulnerable to hidden fees, financial traps and excessive risk taking that will hit their pocketbooks. Governor Romney has made clear he has not learned the lessons of the economic crisis, instead, he’s giving the most irresponsible financial actors a bright green light to pursue profit at any cost to communities across America.”

For the president and his team, it’s a pretty straightforward challenge: do Republicans stand with consumers or do they stand with predatory lenders?

Taken together, yesterday’s recess appointment for Cordray checked off a lot of boxes: it advanced the interests of the middle class, pushed back against unprecedented GOP obstructionism, gave Obama’s base something to cheer about, and left Republicans arguing over process and against consumers’ interests.

What’s more, Obama can now also claim that his move has bipartisan support — Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) endorsed the move. Brown used to believe the opposite, but I don’t imagine the White House will care now that officials can say, “The Cordray appointment enjoys Democratic and Republican support.”