During election years, Cabinet members traditionally would scatter nationwide in the summer and fall to help their party’s candidates draw crowds, raise money, cut ribbons at new federal projects that the candidate secured, and so on.
That venerable tradition took a hit in 2011, when a federal watchdog blasted illegal trips taken by at least seven Cabinet secretaries in the George W. Bush administration in 2005 and 2006. They had claimed to be traveling on official business — at taxpayer expense — while actually out on more than 100 politically motivated trips in battleground states.
“We’re all being very careful” about such things, one senior official in the Obama administration told the Loop this week, and, perhaps in contrast with 2010 or 2012, “there doesn’t seem to be a coordinated effort to send people.” Also, unlike in 2010, when there was stimulus cash to point to, there isn’t much to work with as far as candidates “bringing money home.”
But there are other reasons you may not see quite as much of the Cabinet on the hustings this year — in addition to President Obama’s dismal approval ratings.
For one thing, only a handful of Cabinet members are former mayors, senators or governors who might be in a position to draw decent crowds or be marquee names for fundraisers. (We’re not counting those with niche appeal to interest groups, such as enviros, for example.)
The Cabinet members with some drawing power would include Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa; Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio; and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who hasn’t held a major elective office but could fire up Latino and union voters.
Vilsack has been helping candidates in about 20 states since August, including Florida, Louisiana and Ohio in the past couple of weeks and Iowa this week. Then it’s on to Colorado and Alaska next week.
Castro, a political rock star able to draw crowds outside his home state, is expected to travel to eight states this month. In October, he was in Alaska for embattled Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. (Alaska is a state where federal grant money is especially welcome, and several other Cabinet members — including Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Foxx, Perez and even Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz — have appeared there with Begich for events and fundraisers.)
Former Obama White House senior adviser David Axelrod, who was the 2012 campaign’s senior strategist, observed that there was “more intense scrutiny by Congress than ever before and more sensitivity on the part of the White House on these issues.” As a result, the White House is not “putting people out.”
What’s more, he said, “it really doesn’t help that much, particularly in a year like this, when so many [Democratic] candidates are in red states [and] not eager to tout their relationships with the administration.”
And most Cabinet members’ likely impact in a close race?
“De minimus,” he replied.
We’ve written that President Obama and senior players at the White House really, really want to nominate former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler to replace Eric Holder as attorney general.
One potential hurdle, we noted, is that she’s never been confirmed by the Senate, which may make it harder to get her through the Senate during the post-election lame-duck session set to begin Nov. 12.
Harder, yes, but clearly not impossible, we’re told — as long as Democrats in the likely outgoing Senate majority are willing to thoroughly infuriate their soon-to-be-in-charge Republican friends.
Let’s look at the calendar. (And remember that it has taken, for recent nominees, four to six weeks to move from nomination to hearing.)
The White House, which has not settled on a pick, our colleague Sari Horwitz reports, has said it will announce one after the Nov. 4 elections. So let’s say they nominate Ruemmler on Friday, Nov. 7. She’ll have to deal with paperwork and questions and be obliged to do a round of visits with key lawmakers and so on. That process might take a couple of weeks and run into the Thanksgiving holiday. (And let’s assume, even though it’s likely, that there’s no titanic struggle and delay about getting White House documents.)
In that case, we might assume Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) — though he has several other legislative priorities — would agree to hold a one-day hearing, maybe on Dec. 2. (We assume Leahy’s been chatting with the White House about scheduling.) No matter the date, you can already hear the “What about Cartagena?” chants regarding her role in dealing with the Secret Service prostitution scandal in Colombia.
Under the rules, there’s a layover before the vote, which could then be around Dec. 9. But Republican senators can demand a one-week extension, delaying a committee vote until Dec. 16.
So the nomination would hit the Senate floor the week before Christmas. Then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would file for cloture, and the still-majority (but likely grumpy) Democrats — and furious Republicans — would approve the nomination maybe by Dec. 19.
Now, if Obama and Reid really wanted to jam the Republicans — and since they’re going to be fit to be tied anyway, the D’s might opt for that — they could maybe accelerate the process and have a hearing just before Thanksgiving, which would allow a floor vote around mid-December.
That should put new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in an even more cooperative mood than usual come Jan. 3.
So, yes, it could be done.
But really, really unlikely . . .
Twitter: @KamenInTheLoop, @ColbyItkowitz