Frank Rich on the National Circus: Lessons for Obama’s New Cabinet

 In this handout provided by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden pose with the full Cabinet for an official group photo in the Grand Foyer of the White House, July 26, 2012 in Washington, DC. Seated, from left, are: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Standing in the second row, from left, are: Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Chief of Staff Jack Lew, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.Standing in the third row, from left, are: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Jeffrey D. Zients, Council of Economic Advisers Chair Alan Krueger, and Small Business Administrator Karen G. Mills.
Photo: Chuck Kennedy/The White House via Getty

John McCain has been on the war path, vowing to block U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as secretary of State (should Obama nominate her) and then saying he would block any State nominee until he was satisfied his questions were answered about the Benghazi attacks. Is this a principled stand? Or a fit of personal pique? 
For the good of the country, it’s time to fetch a butterfly net for McCain. At a moment when the Middle East is on fire, you have a United States Senator threatening to hold our State Department hostage for no coherent reasons other than to exercise his temper and to satisfy his insatiable desire for television coverage.

It’s a measure of the fallen state of the GOP that this bitter, ever-more-incoherent hothead is now the party’s only elected official with a voice on foreign affairs — unless you count his boot-licking Sancho Panza, Lindsey Graham. (The saner Republican foreign policy hand in the Senate, Richard Lugar, was defrocked earlier this year when the crackpot Richard Mourdock, the now-vanquished tea-party favorite, ousted him in Indiana’s Republican primary.) McCain is so out of it that he even suggested that Bill Clinton be sent to the Middle East to broker negotiations — apparently forgetting that there actually is another Clinton in place in the cabinet to do that job. 

Attorney General Eric Holder has said that he’s going to stay on in his post, but it’s expected that Secretaries Clinton, Geithner, and Panetta will leave early in the second Obama administration. What lessons should Obama heed from his first cabinet when picking his second?
Much of his cabinet has performed well, so I am not sure there are a ton of lessons to be learned. My biggest concern is Treasury. To me, the biggest failure of the Obama administration has been its inability to address the malfeasance of the financial sector that inflicted so much damage on the country and largely walked away from the wreckage scot-free once America and the world plunged into the Great Recession. The president can try to improve on that record with an economic team that, unlike the departing Geithner and the departed Larry Summers, is free of Robert Rubin protégés who were complicit in the greed-fueled abuses that led to the meltdown. 

A number of prominent, very conservative Republicans — Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Newt Gingrich — have now disowned Romney’s infamous remarks blaming his defeat on Obama awarding “gifts” to the Democratic base. Are they going to score any political points off dissing Mitt?
What I particularly enjoyed was Gingrich accusing Romney of having been “insulting” in his dissing of Latinos, African-Americans, and young voters. This from Newt, who had slimed Obama as the “food stamp president” during the campaign. Then again, everything about Gingrich is very old news, including his hypocrisy. As for Jindal and Walker — who no doubt see themselves as heavy-hitters in the GOP’s future — there is very little political gain to be had from knocking Mitt at this point. Romney is persona non grata in the Republican party. I can’t remember a presidential candidate flaming out this completely in defeat, the landslide losers Goldwater and McGovern included. Though Romney may be temporarily useful as a scapegoat for all that ails the GOP, his afterlife in that role is evaporating fast and he will soon be as little mentioned by Republicans as George W. Bush. 

Self-anointed GOP presidential front-runner Marco Rubio responded to a GQ question on the age of the Earth by saying, “I’m not a scientist, man.” He then went on to say the Earth’s age had nothing to do with the GDP or economic growth. Is this kind of Romneyesque opacity going to appeal to anyone? 
Rubio may be a young and ostensibly bright, modern, inclusive new-style Republican, but he didn’t waste a single second before hedging Romney-style and tossing in a pander to the creationists who vote in the Iowa caucuses. If the new generation of conservative politicians still must kowtow to the most reactionary part of their base — presumably on abortion rights and gay rights as well — that is good political news for Democrats (if not for women and for gay people). And there’s more good news, too. On a post-election trip to Texas, I heard reliably that Rick Perry is all but certain to run for president again. Rand Paul has said publicly that he too might make a go for it, and Rick Santorum has indicated likewise. Michele Bachmann is back in Congress, and will she be able to resist the call? Hard to imagine. So all we need is the return of Herman Cain — and, of course, Trump — and the stars will be in complete alignment for Hillary or whomever in 2016. 

Fast-burning Republican star Allen West conceded his Florida Congressional race yesterday after a single term. West raised a whopping $17 million to secure a seat in a Republican-leaning district against a novice opponent who was only 29 years old. He still managed to lose. Does West’s defeat have any meaning bigger than the demise of a highly erratic and quotable candidate?
West, like many Republicans, was running more to get a slot on Fox News than to hold his seat in Congress. He was in a constant mad-dog rage against his fellow Floridian, the Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whom he called “vile, unprofessional and despicable.” He labeled Obama “probably the dumbest person walking around in America right now.” What his defeat shows — mirroring the national results — is that even a bottomless campaign kitty cannot put over a defective candidate. And since West was one of only two African-American Republican members of Congress, it now means, I guess, that the suddenly demographics-minded GOP will have to work overtime to recruit a new one. The question is whether they can find a black Republican who is not as nuts as West and might actually have a chance of winning over voters.

Frank Rich: Lessons for Obama’s New Cabinet