President Barack Obama's selection of Rep. John McHugh as secretary of the Army seems like a brilliant political stratagem.
How smart is it to sway moderate Republicans, who hold Rep. McHugh in high regard, toward the Democrats' side of the aisle while the conservative Republican purity debate is playing out so loudly? As Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich try to unify the GOP by reducing it, weeding out so-called RINOs ("Republicans in Name Only"), the president's message is clear: "If you, like Mr. McHugh, are a reasonable, respectful pragmatist rather than a die-hard right-wing ideologue, come on in under our big tent because the Republican Party is no longer the place for you."
Agree or disagree, that's a smart message right now. It could resonate in the North Country throughout the special election to replace Rep. McHugh as well as in future races.
Rep. John McHugh visits us in October 2008.
(Enterprise file photo)
The president would also unseat a nine-term congressman who was pretty much unassailable, although several Democrats have tried, albeit without much support from the national party. Expect the national Dems to weigh in heavily this time. We wouldn't be surprised if a candidate had been anointed in Washington already.
OK, it would still be a long shot for a Democrat to win in New York's 23rd Congressional District, but in the back of everyone's mind will be the three consecutive Democratic victories in the neighboring 20th Congressional District, now represented by former venture capitalist Scott Murphy of Glens Falls. That district was considered as impossibly red as the 23rd.
Plus, if the Democrats lose, they could just eliminate the 23rd District if the 2010 Census shows, as expected, that population-losing New York is due to shed a House seat. We wouldn't be surprised if the Obama administration used that as leverage to pry Rep. McHugh out of the job he has held for the last 16 years. Like Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, he was in a bind.
But partisan warfare aside, Rep. McHugh also seems like an excellent hire for the Obama administration, especially as someone to work under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration. We don't know who the other candidates for the job were, but Rep. McHugh must have been considered a score on qualifications alone.
Although he never served in the military, he has known Fort Drum his whole life, and in his long service on the House Armed Services Committee he's acquired deep knowledge of the Army, its veterans, and the Iraq and Afghanistan war fronts. He has always tended to side with generals' counsel over public opinion - a good trait for a job like this. It also helps that he has worked well with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was a senator, as well as with current senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, all Democrats. All three speak highly of him, and then-Sen. Clinton had him come with her on her first visit to Iraq.
He won't be the one who decides when U.S. troops pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but he will play a major role in how those troops are equipped, trained and treated. He'll probably do that job admirably.
We have disagreed with him on plenty of things, like the bank bailout (he voted for it), and we remember a heated debate in our editorial board office in fall 2006 when we said we were shocked to read that U.S. forces had tortured prisoners by waterboarding. He insisted that, to his knowledge, they had not - but that if they had, it was heinous. (They had, as it turned out.)
Generally, he voted with the national Republicans but was always willing to break ranks when something affected his district.
We've always liked him personally. He is respectful and pragmatic but also witty and charming. He's an on-the-ground kind of guy who shows up regularly throughout his huge district and works in Washington to pay for things like rural airports, volunteer fire departments, veterans' health care, home heating subsidies and acid-rain monitoring. He keeps himself well informed, he always works well with others, and every time he showed up at the Enterprise office, jumbo Diet Coke cup in hand, he always stayed for an hour or so - more than enough time to suck down all that soda.
We'll miss him as our congressman, and we think most of the North Country will, too.