Whether the cabinet is bipartisan enough

WHETHER THE CABINET IS BIPARTISAN ENOUGH…. A wide variety of media figures have been quite complimentary about the cabinet team Barack Obama has put together so far. George Stephanopoulos told viewers yesterday, “We have not seen this kind of combination of star power, brain power, and political muscle this early in a cabinet in our lifetimes.” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell added that Obama’s “all-star cabinet” is comprised of the “smartest people he can find.”

The Politico’s Jonathan Martin seems troubled, though, by the lack of Republicans.

The most likely Republican for a top Obama post, based on published speculation and reporting within his transition team this weekend, is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who might keep his job in at least the opening phase of the new administration. Obama has said foreign policy is the area most in need of more bipartisanship, and the likely appointment of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) leaves few other openings.

A Gates reappointment would send a message of caution and continuity within national security circles — not exactly the message that Obama’s most ardent anti-Iraq war supporters are yearning for.

But it would hardly signal a dramatically new style of partisan bridge-building. For one, Gates is not a sharply partisan figure. Before becoming president of Texas A&M, he was a lifelong national security official, spending most of his career in the CIA and heading the spy agency under the first President George Bush. For another, he almost certainly would be a transition figure, rather than one expected by the public or colleagues to stay put or be a decisive policymaking voice for a full term.

So, if Obama keeps Bush’s Pentagon chief around, it’s not really an example of maintaining a bipartisan cabinet, because Gates isn’t Republican enough. It would count, the argument goes, but it wouldn’t really count.

Dan Bartlett, George W. Bush’s former communications director, supports the idea of keeping Gates around, but told Martin, “Choosing one or two token Republicans in lesser Cabinet positions won’t pass the smell test.”

I’m curious, how many Republicans would Obama need to avoid the appearance of “tokenism”? There are only 15 slots. If “one or two” is insufficient, would one-third of Obama’s cabinet have to be made up of Republicans — in meaningful positions, not “lesser” roles — to impress his detractors?

Most of time, the “smartest people he can find” may turn out to be Democrats.