Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Hillary to Pentagon?

Hillary to Pentagon?

"I wrote there was a rumor. I made up that rumor" - Hunter Thompson

The buzz of the week is that John Kerry wants to be Secretary of State. All well and good--except we already have one, and an unusually prominent one at that.

But it does set up some interesting personnel management possibilities for President Obama.

Despite her denials, for my money Hillary Clinton remains the Democratic front runner for 2016. The right may fantasize about a 2012 primary challenge, but Clinton's only path to the White House is being the best possible member of Team Obama.

Two ways that can play out:

The easy way, and what I expected, is that Clinton steps down to start her campaign in late `14 or early `15. This would dovetail nicely with the end of Kerry's term in 2014. This would also mean Israeli-Palestinian peace high on the agenda after the re-elect in 2013.

But with the Kerry noise I see another route.

It goes through the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a short-timer. And Defense is the only cabinet post that could be spun as a "promotion" from Secretary of State, even if it's really a lateral move. (Worst Demotion Ever: Henry Wallace from VP to Commerce.)

Also significant: The Pentagon is, short of the presidency and vice-presidency, the highest remaining glass ceiling in American politics, and would give Hillary a "first." (Tangent: 14 years since last white male Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.)

It also covers a gap that's still significant with the American electorate. A USA Today headline from 2005: "Can Hillary be elected commander in chief?" I wrote then:
It's as if we still envision the president as our king, Richard the Lionhearted personally leading the troops into battle. Any military thinking a president does should be strategy, not battlefield tactics. The personal scars candidates like Bob Dole and John McCain suffered were noble - but does it necessarily make either of them specially qualified in any of the non-military duties of a president?
A stint at the Pentagon would close this "commander-in-chief gap" way more than, say, a term as Vice President. (Plus, ya gotta love Joe Biden and his unique blend of public goofiness and private sage advice.)

The main issue with this plan is timing. In order for Clinton to credibly move from Foggy Bottom to the Pentagon, the administration needs one big foreign policy triumph credited to her. (Egypt is waaay too unpredictable.) While the President himself would prefer to claim full credit for any major success between now and the election, that would push the State -> Defense move to early `13. That gives Hillary only an 18 to 24 month window at DoD before she quits to start her campaign.

So Obama, wanting to set up the succession, finds a way to share the foreign policy credit and spin the move: As we wind down our mission in Afghanistan, I need the very best at the Pentagon.

Kerry is clearly antsy, for what that's worth. (The hints are too unsubtle; if I'm reading it in the papers, it's too public.) Massachusetts Democrats proved themselves quite flexible last year with the Ted Kennedy vacancy, repealing the law they passed to keep Mitt Romney from appointing a replacement for President John Kerry, and they could flex again. They won't get Scott Browned again.

A Kerry resignation in `11 or `12 would allow Gov. Deval Patrick to clear the primary field for a successor. It would help the Massachusetts pols if the Clinton-Kerry swap and subsequent temporary appointment and special election all happened before they draw the new, one less seat congressional map. But that's a minor facet of this Grand Unifying Theory.

All this presumes a second term for Obama--which I presume. The modern Republican Party can't nominate anyone electable and can't elect anyone nominatable.

I obviously have no insider Beltway poop; I'm just a crazy Iowa blogger with a goofy hat. But I can speculate with the best of them. So my advice is to watch the foreign policy and Pentagon fronts with this frame in mind.

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