Obama Reserves the Right to Change His Mind on Clinton and Holder

Hillary Clinton is up against the same pay provision that threatened to sink Nixon AG nominee William Saxbe.
Hillary Clinton is up against the same pay provision that threatened to sink Nixon AG nominee William Saxbe. (The Washington Post)
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By Al Kamen
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Loop Fans might want to watch for an intriguing pattern emerging in the way President-elect Barack Obama handles some of his potentially controversial nominations. Call it the Best Buy, or contingency, pick. Obama used it to great effect in his handling of the secretary of state's job for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and the attorney general's post for Eric Holder.

Clinton, for example, was his pick, period. Not a "leading contender," as often happens when a name leaks out or a trial balloon is purposely launched.

Not here. The Obama folks surely knew that, if nothing else, Clinton's three-car motorcade at Obama's Chicago headquarters was likely to be spotted. But when word got out, some of Obama's folks didn't deflect -- they didn't just say that it was a friendly chat, or that he would be honored if she would be willing to serve in some capacity in his administration. No, on background, transition folks said it was a done deal for State.

Oh. Well. Not quite. There is a 30-day return policy. In that period, she, not the president-elect, has to figure out how this would work with Bill and his numerous adventures, speeches, and dealings with overseas heads of state and others as part of his Clinton Global Initiative. There also may be some questions about prior financial affairs to work out.

Bill said yesterday that he will do whatever it takes to make the appointment happen, and lawyers were confident they could accomplish the fancy footwork. In the meantime, the junior senator from New York is doing a little backing and filling herself, letting it be known how she likes the Senate, albeit in a very junior capacity with no prospects of moving up, and wants to be her own boss and so on. So she's said to be mulling over the offer.

Reminds us of the Hamlet-like performance of former New York governor Mario Cuomo when Bill Clinton offered him a seat on the Supreme Court and he accepted, then he didn't, and back and forth.

For Obama, sending up one name is a more effective way to test reaction on the Hill -- the questions can be focused on a specific nominee as opposed to a trio of possibles.

In the end, if it doesn't work out, there was no Obama announcement, no photo op. There are no pictures of him walking out with Clinton, smiling. He's reached out to his former foe, he's been magnanimous. And of course he will be saddened that it didn't work out.

Then there was the Best Buy pick Tuesday of former deputy attorney general Holder to be attorney general, which would make him the first African American to hold the office. While there are conflicting accounts about precisely what was said to Holder, who apparently has tentatively accepted the job, there's still the contingency element.

He'll be the nominee if he gets some support from Senate Republicans and clears the vetting process. If it doesn't work out, same rules apply. The Republican National Committee has already attacked Holder, focusing on his role at the end of the Clinton administration in the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. GOP senators are warily circling. Some appear to be lining up to do battle.

So if you want the big flat-screen, it's yours. Just save the receipt and don't throw away the box.

Weighty Deliberations

You may have thought that when federal judges and Supreme Court justices got together, the conversation would naturally turn to topics involving ERISA law and the dormant commerce clause.

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