Is Obama Going to Bowles Over the Left? Who cares?

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Today in pointless-but-horrifying speculation comes from Ezra Klein, who predicts that President Obama is going to kick the left right in the solar plexus should he get re-elected:

One of Washington’s favorite guessing games — behind Mitt Romney’s veepstakes, but way ahead of who will run the Commerce Department — is who will replace Timothy Franz Geithner as Treasury Secretary. And as of today, I’m ready to name a frontrunner, at least if Barack Obama is re-elected: Erskine Bowles.

That guy? The co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Commission?

Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, had built up a huge storehouse of bipartisan credibility as co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Commission. He didn’t want to join the administration in 2011, when joining the administration meant trench warfare with the Republicans. And as Bowles assiduously worked to show off how bipartisan he was — lavishly complimenting Rep. Paul Ryan, for instance — the administration cooled on him in return.

Bipartisanship? Have they been asleep for the last two years? Why, in heaven’s name?

For the Obama administration, Bowles has a number of qualifications. For one thing, Republicans adore him. Ryan has called him “my favorite Democrat.” Appointing Bowles to be Treasury Secretary would ensure a smooth confirmation, and it would be interpreted as a sign of goodwill and “seriousness” both by Republicans and by the media. Coming after a bitterly partisan election and at the outset of a hugely consequential series of negotiations, that could have real appeal to the White House.

I can’t be sure about this, but something tells me being Paul Ryan’s “favorite Democrat” is like being a normal person’s favorite cockroach. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you appoint the Spirit of Goldwater to Treasury Secretary, in the eyes of the right, he’ll become the next Spirit of Mao inside of ten minutes. Anything else?

One reservation you often hear when playing the “who will be the next Treasury Secretary” guessing game is, “but they have no market experience.” For better or worse, it’s considered crucial that the Treasury Secretary understand, and be capable of working with, markets. Bowles was an investment banker before he entered politics, and he currently serves on the board of directors for both Morgan Stanley and GE. He’s also personally beloved by Wall Street, where “Simpson-Bowles” has deep and fervent supporters, including many who have no real idea what’s in it. Appointing Bowles would be a signal to them that Washington is getting serious.

Beloved by Wall Street. Former investment banker. Insanely obsessed with cutting the deficit. “Serious.” Great.

If you talk to the administration, they’ll tell you that the budget negotiations will ultimately revolve come down to one issue: Will Republicans agree to raise taxes? What Bowles did in this morning’s Washington Post is prove that he’s willing to bring the capital he’s built among Republicans, among the media, and among businessmen to the fight over that question. What Bowles wrote is little different than what the Obama White House has been saying for some time. But it’s an argument that has more force coming from Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, than coming from them. And that could be a game-changer when it comes to negotiating the final deal.

Okay, since we’re in baseless speculation mode, I’ve got one of my own. Here goes: if Obama wins, it doesn’t matter who he appoints to anything. Unless Democrats by some miracle win both the House and a filibuster-proof Senate, then this fiscal cliff business is going to be a high-stakes game of chicken. Republicans will propose “give me everything I want or the country gets it,” and Obama will try to compromise, but ultimately be forced to adopt the same tactics due to total Republican intransigence. And whoever wins that one, it will be the country that loses.

In the end, who cares who’s going to be Treasury Secretary? Does Ezra have some bets on it that I don’t know about? I’m sharply reminded of this Jay Rosen post from 2008:

A key point: “we have special insight.” The current generation of political reporters has based its bid for election-year authority on its horse race and handicapping skills. But reporters actually have no such skills. Think: what does a Howard Fineman (Newsweek, MSNBC) know about politics in America? I mean, what would you logically turn to him for? It’s got to be: Who’s ahead, what’s the strategy, and how are the insiders sizing up the contest? That’s supposedly his expertise, if he has any expertise; and if he doesn’t have any expertise, then what is he doing on my television screen, night after night, talking about politics?

Even if Fineman and company had it, the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?

Among the “bogus narratives” the campaign press has developed so far, the Politico editors chose three to illustrate their humiliation. John McCain’s “collapse” in the summer of 2007, which meant we could write him off; Mike Huckabee’s win in Iowa, where the candidate without an organization took a state where electoral success, we were assured, was all about organization; and Obama’s “change the tone in politics” campaign which, according to the Gang, was not going to be in tune with the voters’ rawer, more partisan feelings in ‘08. All three were a bust, suggesting political journalists have no special insight into: How is this going to play out? What they have are cheap, portable routines in which you ask that kind of question, and try to get ahead of the race. This, too, is what I mean by mindlessness.

Emphasis mine.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is national correspondent for the Week, and a former web editor for the Washington Monthly.