Schiff Urges Obama: Keep Gates

Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:26pm

Conservative House Democrats are floating an idea that once would have seemed laughable: keeping President Bush’s Defense secretary in place — temporarily, at least — if Sen. Barack Obama is elected commander in chief.

Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, raised the issue last week at the House Democratic Caucus meeting with Obama. Schiff asked the Illinois Senator and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee if he would consider having Pentagon boss Robert Gates stay for at least the first few months of his new administration.

“There were quite a few groans and moans,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a member of the House’s Out of Iraq Caucus — and one of several Members who confirmed that the topic came up during the closed-door meeting with Obama.

Participants at the meeting said Obama did not directly respond to Schiff’s question, nor did his campaign return a call from Roll Call seeking comment. Schiff declined to comment, saying Democrats are not supposed to talk about closed Caucus meetings.

While the idea might seem far-fetched for a candidate who opposed the Iraq War from the start, several conservative Democrats well-versed in military issues believe the idea has merit. They said Obama should eventually bring on his own Defense secretary, but suggested Gates might offer stability during the first months of what would likely be a hectic transition.

“A lot of people have been talking about it privately,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), a Blue Dog Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee. Cooper said he would support the move for three or four months to make sure there was continuity for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other conservative House Democrats praised Gates’ willingness to work with Congress and said he has been sea change from his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who repeatedly faced bipartisan calls to resign for his handling of post-invasion Iraq. Lawmakers said Rumsfeld showed them little respect at hearings and often did not provide them information they requested.

“He’s light years better than Rumsfeld,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), a Blue Dog Democrat and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. “If either of these guys became president and asked Mr. Gates to stick around, I would not object to it.”

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who after retiring as a Navy admiral in 2003 became a leading critic of the Bush administration’s war policies, said he has “great respect” for Gates.

“If Sen. Obama were elected and decided to do it, I’d support it,” Sestak said of the prospect of an extended Gates’ tour of duty. “I think it would be wonderful to keep the continuity.”

Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) also gave Gates high marks, saying: “I am proud of what’s he done. He listens well, is a hard worker and grasps the issues really well.” But Skelton would not wade into the possibility of extending Gates’ tenure. “That’s up to the new president,” he said.

But Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said Gates should not stay beyond next January. “The Defense Department needs a fresh start. We have some excellent candidates out there” to lead the Pentagon, he said.

McGovern also panned the idea. “This administration has been a disaster. We need a clean break,” he said.

Gates himself has prompted some speculation that he might be interested in staying longer by his actions in recent months. He recently ousted the top military and civilian Air Force leaders who had faced Congressional criticism for botching a multibillion-dollar aircraft contract award and sloppy handling of nuclear weapons.

Last week, Gates also released a new National Defense Strategy, a move that caught some Pentagon observers by surprise for coming so late in Bush’s tenure. Moreover, the strategy calls for a greater emphasis on working with other nations to combat terrorism and backs off of Rumsfeld’s push for pre-emptive military strikes.

Rep. Jim Marshall (Ga.), a Blue Dog Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, said he’s pleased that Gates’ strategy has emphasized both “hard” and “soft” uses of military power. He also said he would be open to Gates staying.

Asked at a Pentagon press conference last week whether he would consider serving in an Obama administration, Gates said, “I am planning and expecting to return to the Pacific Northwest” when Bush leaves office.

Pressed by reporters, Gates added, “I’ll just leave it at that.”

It would not be unprecedented for a Democratic president to pick a Republican to serve as his Defense secretary. President Bill Clinton won high marks from Capitol Hill for choosing former Sen. William Cohen of Maine to serve as Pentagon chief for his second term.

And President John F. Kennedy reportedly considered keeping President Dwight Eisenhower’s Defense secretary in place when first elected. However, Kennedy opted to bring in his own man, an outsider from the business community, Robert McNamara — whom historians have widely criticized for mismanaging the Vietnam War.