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So . . . Wyden at HHS?

Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden

The job for secretary of Health & Human Services is open. Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, who seemed here to be the most logical northwesterner for it, isn’t interested (though he says he’s open to an advisory role). There’s another Northwest name very much on the table, though: Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

There’s a case here too. (As Blue Oregon notes, in its posts on the arguments for both Wyden and Kitzhaber.)

There’s some overlap between the two, but significant differences as well.

There is, for Democrats, a political downside to a Wyden pick: His Senate seat would be up for grabs. And, Democratic success in Oregon lately notwithstanding, you should assume that it would be. The rule in Oregon is that a Senate vacancy prompts a special election. The last time that happened, about a dozen years ago, the opening seat had been held for three decades by a Republican; the winner in that special election was a Democrat – Wyden. Only months later the other seat was up for election, and it was won by the Republican Wyden narrowly defeated: Gordon Smith. If Wyden’s seat opened now, might Smith run for it? Couldn’t rule it out. Might he win? Couldn’t rule that out, either. In fact, he probably would start out as something of a frontrunner.

But put all that aside and consider the idea of Wyden as HHS secretary, and in effect as one of the primary leaders of the health care reform effort.

In some ways, he would mirror Kitzhaber: He would be more Mr. Inside than Mr. Outside. Wyden would not likely be the nationally charismatic salesman for reform that Kitzhaber would be. He would, though, share Kitzhaber’s passion for the subject and his sense of how to usefully craft policy on it. And there is this: He might be his own best lobbyist. Wyden’s special legislative skills involve crafting unlikely alliances and finding unusual solutions to problems that can win support across as broad range.

His own health financing proposal, which appears to have a good deal of support in the Senate, is genuinely bipartisan, pulling about as much support from Republicans and even conservative Republicans (Idaho’s Mike Crapo has signed on, for instance) as from Democrats. And in a very partisan Washington, Wyden has managed to maintain a good rep pretty widely across the board, something Barack Obama may find appealing.

He has no large-scale managerial expertise. But then, a top-level cabinet secretary isn’t necessarily a hands-on manager; this is a policy-setter, a settler of disputes, an outside face for his agency. On those bases, Wyden might be reasonable fit.

Would he want to give up his Senate seat? That would seem doubtful. But then, a single person’s judgment call can be hard to forecast . . .

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