Picking players from the other team

PICKING PLAYERS FROM THE OTHER TEAM…. At this point, there are five Republicans with degrees of power and influence in the Obama administration — LaHood, McHugh, Gates, Huntsman, and Leach — and it would have been six were it not for the unpleasantness with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). The NYT has an item today on the ways in which these moves have taken a toll on “Republican morale.”

In picking Republicans like Mr. McHugh for top jobs, the Obama administration says it is assembling a coalition government that welcomes qualified members of the opposition. It gives the White House a claim to bipartisanship despite continuing clashes with Republican Congressional leaders.

But the political benefits are an equally strong incentive. Remaining Republican colleagues become discouraged and feel further isolated in the minority. Political vacancies are created. And Republicans can be painted as being hostile to more moderate Republicans or those willing to engage the Democratic administration.

It works, in other words, on more than one level. They’ll no doubt keep doing it anyway, but it’s more difficult for congressional Republicans to label the White House as strident partisans, unwilling to take GOP ideas seriously, when Obama has more members of the opposition party on his team than any modern president.

John McHugh’s decision to join the administration as Secretary of the Army, though, seems to hurt more. Gates was already at the Pentagon, Leach and LaHood were already out of Congress, and Huntsman was out in Utah, but McHugh was a popular Republican leader in the House. Worse, his departure opens up a competitive House race in New York

These moves demoralize the minority, dwindle their numbers, make the president appear more magnanimous, and give the administration more bipartisan credibility. John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former top House aide, however, hopes to sow some seeds of division among Democrats.

“At some point,” Mr. Feehery said, “the liberals are going to catch on, and they are going to have a fit.”

Maybe. When the McHugh announcement was first announced, I received a few emails from Dems complaining that they’d like to see fewer Republicans in positions of military responsibility, fearing that Gates and McHugh reinforce bogus stereotypes.

But I suspect we’re still a ways from a “liberal fit.” The key, it seems, is the policy. If the president is going to work with a Republican Defense Secretary and a Republican Secretary of the Army to a) implement procurement reform; b) reform military spending in general; c) scrap “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; and d) revamp use of the military in the context of improving U.S. foreign policy, my guess is the left will give the Democratic president a reasonable amount of slack.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.