CFPB Director Confirmation Battle Kabuki, Part 2

Here we go again:

President Barack Obama is targeting Red State Republican senators opposed to Richard Cordray’s nomination to be director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — part of his larger strategy to portray the GOP as pawns of Wall Street.

Great, right? I mean, I’ve written repeatedly, right here on this blog, about the quantum leap forward the CFPB represents, the need to get a truly dedicated and gifted person installed as its inaugural director, and (of course) the inevitable Republican opposition to it. So it ought to warm the cockles of progressives’ hearts (and in fact the hearts of everyone who likes the sound of sensible banking regulation) to hear that the Obama administration is rolling out this concerted, public push for Cordray’s nomination…shouldn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

A lot of the answer to that question depends upon what one presumes the motives are for the Obama administration’s decision to push Cordray’s nomination to the forefront of the national consciousness at this particular time. If you’re the sort of person that reads Jay Carney’s press releases (or transcriptions of his statements from the White House briefing room) and takes them at face value, then it probably sounds to you as if the President is making a resolute attempt to do what’s necessary to make one of the Dodd-Frank bill’s greatest accomplishments, the CFPB, function effectively.

I’d like to believe that story, myself. Unfortunately, experience with both the Obama administration’s previous actions in this particular sphere as well as having been an observer of politics in general for some time lead me to doubt that the proffered explanation is the actual one.

Why? Because, from the very moment the GOP declared their opposition not to Cordray himself as a person unfit to lead the CFPB, but to the CFPB itself, a couple of things have been clear:

  • The GOP will do whatever they can to hobble, cripple or outright destroy the CFPB as it is currently constituted. This includes but is not limited to, opposing literally anyone the President might nominate who is not a complete patsy for banking interests (who Republicans believe are being harmed by the CFPB doing its job effectively).
  • President Obama has had from the very beginning – and still has, this very moment – the tools to circumvent at least this particular portion of Republican obstructionism, in the form of a recess appointment.

That means, if the administration’s primary goal were to install a genuinely competent and stalwart consumer watchdog as the first head of the CFPB (without which, it cannot by law fulfill many of its roles), all the President would need to do is wait until the Senate is in recess, and appoint whomever he wished. This was brought up by me and many others when Elizabeth Warren, whose idea the entire CFPB was to begin with, was under consideration for the post of its first director. A lot of noise was made in various sections of the media about how Republican “distaste” for Warren specifically was what was stopping the GOP from being willing to confirm her, but any observant onlooker who’d read the GOP’s own stated opposition to the CFPB itself knew this to be false.

Regardless of the reason for the GOP’s intransigence, though, when it became clear that they would not confirm Warren under any circumstances, instead of simply recess-appointing Warren, the Obama administration chose to move away from even nominating Warren to head the agency she created and led the construction of, in favor of Richard Cordray.

Cordray’s nomination surprised me somewhat, because he is truly a consumer advocate in the same mold as Warren. To begin with, if one is planning to nominate someone who’s virtually identical to Warren, why not just nominate Warren herself? And if the answer to that question is that the calculation is that Warren couldn’t be confirmed by the Senate GOP, then why nominate someone who’s her regulatory twin and whom she mentored in his current role? The only possible answer to that question that makes any sense would be that the Obama administration actually did believe that the GOP just had a clash with Warren specifically, more of a personality clash than anything else, and that they’d be “reasonable” if her name was taken off the table as a nominee.

Needless to say, if that was indeed the thinking, it hasn’t worked out so well. Cordray’s nomination remains as bottlenecked by the Senate GOP as any potential Warren nomination would have…because, as I and many others pointed out, it is the CFPB itself the GOP really objects to, not the specific nominee to head it. They don’t want the CFPB to exist at all, and if they can’t avoid that reality, then Republicans will try to do whatever they can to cripple it.

That’s why the administration’s unforced insistence on bringing up Cordray’s nomination and stating that they’re willing to “take it to the American people” is odd: partly because Obama has always had the tools to appoint whomever he wishes, be it Warren, Cordray or the Easter Bunny, and also because it’s not as if GOP intransigence has suddenly subsided on this issue

What you are witnessing is spectacle, nothing more nor less. The Obama administration will make a splashy public show of trying hard to force the nomination of Cordray past an adamant, unyielding Senate GOP, who for their part will make an equally showy spectacle of defeating the nomination. In the end, nothing – nothing – will be one iota different than it is today, unless you assume that part of the reasoning for this odd choice of ineffective public spectacle is to gain some sort of PR or political advantage.

It may be – though I doubt it – that the Obama administration believes, what with all the recent OWS-generated focus on income inequality and banksters/1%ers vs regular people, that they can capitalize on that zeitgeist and siphon some of it off to benefit their campaign. I have a hard time believing that, because if the administration truly wanted to generate some good “optics,” the best way to do that would be to actually accomplish something positive on this front, just like it spoke volumes about the difference between this administration and the last when they actually GOT Osama Bin Laden, instead of just talking tough on terror. Can the famously politically-savvy Obama administration truly believe that it will really make much of a difference to voters in 11+ months that the President picked a fight over a nomination, and lost, with the Senate GOP? Will most of the public even REMEMBER such a thing in eleven months? And, to the extent that they do, will their memories of the administration losing this nomination battle really make them more likely to show up and pull the lever for the President in November 2012?

If you find that strains credulity, then your reaction is much the same as mine was.

The Obama administration doesn’t need to work hard to create any NEW opportunities to demonstrate vividly to anyone who’s paying attention that the GOP is pro-1%, pro-bankster and vehemently opposed to middle class economic relief if it means that even a dollar has to come from the very wealthy. Such examples are legion; we already have an embarrassment of them. I find it very difficult to believe Team Obama think THIS example will be some sort of smoking gun, or that the political boost gained from running ads that say the GOP opposes cracking down on payday lenders would be greater than the political boost gained from, you know, actually achieving the nomination of a dedicated consumer advocate to head the CFPB, thus allowing it to begin to function in full.