This is important news, for a number of reasons.
First, a word about Difi, Rockefeller and Panetta.
1. Difi drives us nuts, and anyone who reads the blog knows it. She’s the Dem we’re always having to beat up in order to get her to do the right thing (though Max Baucus comes a close second). So, I readily acknowledge your, my, first impulse to be “who cares what Difi says?” The problem is that America cares. To us, Diane Feinstein is a pain in the butt. To my mother – aka Middle America – she’s a smart person, who is an expert on the issue, who has a D after her name, and who thinks the guy may not be qualified. She also has power and can screw with Obama mightily, now and in the future. Our dislike for Difi is irrelevant to this equation.
2. Then there’s Rockefeller. Totally worthless human being and an absolute joke as the outgoing Intelligence chair. But to America at large, he’s the outgoing chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a Democrat. What he says matters to ma and pa in the sticks, even if the rest of us think he’s a joke. And when he questions Obama’s nominee in such a critical area, it matters to the public at large.
3. Panetta. Interesting choice. Opposed torture, not wedded to the national security special interests. I acknowledge all of that, and applaud it. But because he’s an unusual choice, even an unconventional one, I’d argue that you need to handle this nomination very carefully, so as to avoid any possible hiccups (Democrats per se need to tread carefully in the area of national security because we’ve spent so many years letting Republicans pummel us with it).
Now for why I think this story matters. As Joe and I have written before, experienced politicians in Washington – like Feinstein and Rockefeller – don’t go public with criticism of a fellow Democrat unless private avenues for expressing their concerns are exhausted, and proved fruitless. That means that Feinstein and Rockefeller likely have other, larger concerns, with the Obama transition, than what we’re seeing here. I.e., the frustration was already there, and only just came to a head now.
Second, Feinstein is the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She wasn’t notified of Obama’s choice. That’s rather unheard of. She has to oversee the CIA director’s nomination hearing. You absolutely positively want her on board. You don’t just spring the nomination on her in the press. Again, the fact that she’s ticked off, going public, and expressing disapproval of the choice is a big big deal. As is Rockefeller’s public criticism, as the outgoing chair of the Senate Intell Committtee and all the gravitas that entails.
But it’s more than that. Feinstein’s and Rockefeller’s public criticism gives an opening to Republicans to try to defeat this nomination. You can debate the merits of whether Feinstein and Rockefeller are to blame for going public, or whether Obama is to blame for provoking them, but the public criticism of the nominee by the top two Senate Democratic experts on intelligence matters gives cover to any Republican, Democrat or Independent interested in defeating this nomination.
Adding to the problem, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who also sits on the Intell panel, says that he wasn’t just notified of the pick, he was consulted on the choice. That’s an even greater slight to Feinstein, since it’s not as though the transition was giving no one a heads up.
Then there’s the issue of Panetta’s experience, which both Feinstein and Rockefeller express concerns about. Panetta is being asked to lead the CIA. Usually you pick someone to head an agency who is an expert in that field. Yes, it’s often better in life to choose someone for a job who is smart, a quick learner, a good manager, and who can learn the details later. But for the heads of government agencies, you tend to choose someone with experience in that field. The choice of Panetta has already raised some eyebrows. That’s all the more reason you make sure you have your ducks in a row, that you’ve “sold” Panetta to your most important friends, such as in the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, before making the choice final and then going public. The pick of Panetta is not a slam dunk, and shouldn’t be treated as one.
Along those lines, this part of the Times story is evidence of the problem Obama faces with this choice:
Lee H. Hamilton, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, of which Mr. Panetta was a member, said Mr. Panetta’s good relationship with Mr. Obama could translate into influence within the broader intelligence community.
Mr. Hamilton said Mr. Panetta could make up for a lack of direct intelligence experience by picking a strong group of aides at the agency.
It’s never good when even your defenders are saying publicly that your choice as CIA director doesn’t have experience in intelligence matters.
Josh Marshall thinks that maybe Obama intentionally cut Feinstein out of this decision. But to what end? It’s one thing to ignore people who are of no consequence (and even that can come back to haunt you), but quite another to take on the incoming chair of a major Senate committee – the very committee, like it or not, that you need in order to get your nominee confirmed. There’s an old adage about taking on the king: If you’re gonna shoot him, you better kill him. (Works for grizzly bears too.) Difi can screw mightily with Obama over this nomination, and for years to come as chair of a committee on an issue where Democrats are traditionally weak. Regardless of whether you or I like her, I just don’t see the logic in ticking her off while not taking her out.
All of this strikes me as part of a larger pattern that weaves its way from the campaign through the transition. It’s about “political autarky,” as I’ve called it. It’s the belief that you can, and should, do everything yourself – and that your traditional friends and allies are not only irrelevant, but should actively be shunned. I wrote this last month about the strategy:
Obama’s people seem to have a predisposition towards going it alone. Given a choice between using someone else’s wheel that’s already out there, and reinventing one themselves, they tend to go for the latter. In real terms, this means that Obama’s campaign decided early on not to embrace the Netroots. They would simply create their own blogs and online grassroots at BarackObama.com. And while this worked, famously, to a degree, there came a point in the campaign where the Obama team and the blogosphere both realized they needed to work together in order to win.
At some point in politics, you need friends. Even people you don’t particularly like. Team Obama has so far shown no reticence in wooing Republicans (Rick Warren and $300bn in tax cuts come to mind). At some point they’re going to need to start wooing Democrats as well.