To those who know him, Gregg still being Gregg
Audio slideshow produced by Jillian Jorgensen // Photos by Caroline Bridges // Audio recorded by Jillian Jorgensen
By JILLIAN JORGENSEN
Special to the Union Leader
WASHINGTON–There are few senators with a high enough profile to be household names throughout the country. Sen. Judd Gregg has never been, and still is not, one of them.
But since last fall, the New Hampshire Republican has been getting more attention from his party and the media. That attention reached a crescendo with his 10-day stint as Obama’s second nominee for secretary of the Commerce Department, which ended with Gregg’s withdrawal of his name from consideration.
But the focus on Gregg has not faded away; he has emerged as a leading Republican voice on matters of fiscal policy – and as a leading critic of the administration he almost joined. Still, some who know the senator say he is behaving just as he always has, and that a series of events – from the economic meltdown to the election of a Democrat to the White House – has helped him find his way into the spotlight.
“Judd is a very important voice for this country, at this time, on the danger of debt and things we need to do to avoid it from continuing to explode on us,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, where Gregg is the top Republican.
Before Gregg’s nomination to the Commerce post, insider media outlets like Politico were buzzing with speculation about whether Gregg would accept, and about a deal reached with Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, to appoint a Republican to Gregg’s Senate seat. But in fewer than two weeks, Gregg withdrew. He chalked up the decision to what ends many a brief affair: irreconcilable differences. Gregg decided he just could not support the president’s agenda.
The flirtation with, and then abandonment of, the Cabinet spot could have spelled political problems for Gregg. At the press conference that followed his withdrawal, Gregg said he would “probably not” seek reelection in 2012.
“That was kind of a tough time, a difficult situation for him to go through. And I think, ultimately, you know, that probably wasn’t a good fit,” Conrad said, pausing to laugh briefly, during a telephone interview. “On certain key things, he has a very different view [than the president], and so I think it just would’ve been uncomfortable. Ultimately, I think that’s the conclusion he reached.”
But the withdrawal also raised his profile, and just weeks later, he was the lead critic of Obama’s budget, railing against the spending in press conferences, newspaper columns, television appearances and radio addresses.
Gregg, it seemed, had recovered quickly from his misstep.
“He waded right back into the thick of things,” Conrad said.
Safe at home
Back home, in New Hampshire, the withdrawal of his name did not hurt his popularity, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
“He’s always been one of the more popular politicians in the state, and (his approval ratings) haven’t gone down,” Smith said.
There was a crush of stories in the national media chronicling Gregg’s road from the Grand Foyer of the White House, where he stood beside Obama to accept the Commerce nomination, to the broadcast gallery in the Capitol, where he struggled to explain just what had happened – why he had accepted the nomination in the first place, and why it took so long to realize it would not work.
“I don’t want to use the word betrayal, but it’s this broken flirtation that was kind of interesting in the first place. And then, when it fell apart, that’s just kind of one these great Washington alliance stories,” said Albert May, associate professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University.
In the past couple of months Gregg has given interviews to The Washington Post and The Boston Globe for stories about his transition from nominee to top budget critic, he has appeared on cable networks like MSNBC numerous times to talk about fiscal policy, and he and his charts on the budget have been lampooned on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Gregg declined to comment for this story.
Gregg represented New Hampshire in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected governor in 1988. The son of another Republican governor, he has served in the Senate since 1993 and is now the state’s senior senator, serving as the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. He also serves on the Appropriations Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Those who know Gregg said he is not doing anything new. He has always cared deeply about the budget, about fiscal responsibility, about entitlement reform, colleagues and analysts say. It’s not that he has changed, they said, but that, for a host of reasons not limited to the Commerce nomination, everybody else just started paying attention.
“I think you can go back, even into the fall, and it’s clear that Judd’s being looked to more than ever as a leader on some of the really serious challenges facing the country,” said former Sen. John E. Sununu, the Republican who served in the Senate with Gregg for six years before being unseated by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen last fall.
Leader on fiscal issues
Gregg led his party’s negotiation on the congressional bail-out of troubled banks last fall.
“Budget and economic issues have very high visibility right now. Judd’s always been a leader on those issues in the Senate. There’s no Republican in the White House to comment on those issues,” Sununu added.
Conrad agreed, saying it was a “confluence of events” that put Gregg front and center, adding that he shared many of Gregg’s views.
“I think it’s evident that we’re on an unsustainable course, and it’s critically important to the country that we get on a different path. And Judd Gregg is really one of the most important and persuasive voices on this point,” Conrad said.
The two senators have proposed a bi-partisan task force that would fast-track legislation dealing with entitlement reform to an up-or-down vote in Congress. Gregg has called the looming retirement of the Baby Boom generation and the strain it would put on the economy an approaching “fiscal tsunami.”
“Judd has always been a strong voice, and passionate on these issues, but these issues have tended to not get much attention in the national media. It’s been like the country’s been asleep at the switch on this,” Conrad said. “But when it became clear how important all this is, that became a moment that people became more ready to listen to a message Judd has been delivering for a long period of time.”
Smith, at UNH, said Gregg’s decision not to run next year could be another reason why he has taken such a strong stance, front and center, attacking the president’s fiscal policy.
“His not running for re-election frees him up to be in that position where he can say whatever he wants, and whatever he feels, and not have it impact his re-election,” Smith said. Other Republicans up for re-election in 2010 might be wary of attacking a popular president, Smith said.
Smith, who said he was surprised Gregg was even interested in the Commerce spot, describing the secretary as “the guy that gets coffee at the Cabinet meetings,” said Gregg would have faced a tough election in 2010 with or without his Commerce flip-flop.
“Republicans across New England are a dying breed, and I think he doesn’t want to be the last of the dinosaurs,” Smith said.
But still, Smith said he “would not be shocked” if the national attention and the partisan fervor help the senator decide he does want to run again in 2010 after all.
“He’s not somebody who seeks media attention,” Smith said. “He’s not the kind of guy who’s ever really been running for the cameras. But maybe, because he’s been asked to be in a more partisan political position here, publicly, he may get the taste for combat again, and say they need somebody with his experience to run.”
While Gregg may not have sought out media attention, Sununu said Gregg has never shied away from it.
“I think Judd has an easy-going demeanor, but it’s certainly not fair to suggest that he’s ever been shy or quiet about talking about the importance of budget reform,” Sununu said. “I don’t think his temperament has changed, and his approach to these issues hasn’t changed. But I think people from outside Washington and inside Washington really can recognize and appreciate the expertise and thoughtfulness he brings to the issues.”
Conrad said the media and members of Congress have turned to Gregg for his opinions because of his strong views, his long history of involvement in fiscal issues, and how much he knows about and cares about those issues.
“This is really at the core of Judd Gregg: he is deeply concerned about the explosion of debt and where that leads the country,” Conrad said.