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Cabinet Choices

[ 57 ] December 17, 2012 |

A couple quick thoughts on SecState and SecDef:

I’m not so sure that the Benghazi imbroglio was the proximate cause of Rice’s decision to step aside. I don’t have any inside info, but questions were developing about her association with Paul Kagame, and more generally about her inclination to support Rwanda’s account of the current M23 mess. Of course, it’s not exactly true that close identification with Rwanda is nomination poison, but with Republicans already looking for blood it may have made the climb insurmountable.

Kerry would seem to be a good choice on the merits, less so on the strategic aspects. Dan Nexon and I gamed this out a while ago, however, and came to the conclusion that it might not be such a big deal, depending on what Kerry’s plans for 2014 were:

On SecDef, the atmospherics of Chuck Hagel are pretty bad; at some point the Democrats need to be able to make a convincing case that they can manage the Defense Department without Republican help. However, I’m increasingly thinking that the atmospherics are really the primary difficulty, and that there’s not going to be any policy problem. The administration probably thinks that having a Republican in charge when the defense cuts come down is a good thing, and Hagel certainly has the right enemies.

Comments (57)

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  1. Desert Rat says:

    I really think a stink needs to be raised if Hagel is his choice.

    It was bad enough when Clinton nominated Republicans, but there are any number of Dems capable of being Secretary of Defense that are at least as capable as Hagel. For that matter, I’d rather have Kerry at Defense and someone else at State, if push came to shove.

  2. I think you might be right about the cause of Rice’s withdrawal. The administration certainly hasn’t seem too terribly intimidated by the Republicans’ Benghazi attacks. “Please proceed, Governor” seems to be Obama’s attitude towards that gambit.

    at some point the Democrats need to be able to make a convincing case that they can manage the Defense Department without Republican help.

    What’s Leon Panetta? Chopped liver?

    • Murc says:

      He’s not, but Obama could do better than to have two of his three SecDef picks be Republicans, not to mention that replacing Panetta with Hagel would mean that from 1997 until… probably at least 2015 (I can’t imagine Hagel sticking around less than two years, and more likely for the rest of Obama’s second term) the SecDef will have been a Republican for all but 18 or so months.

      • LosGatosCA says:

        3 Republican SoDs in 4 Democratic presidential terms, if Hagel is nominated and confirmed.

        Nothing says fetal position like having the top job in any administration go to the opposite party.

        Well, at least Obama and Clinton have kept the most powerful economic policy position staffed with people sympathetic to Democratic values.

        Oh, you mean Greenspan and Bernanke aren’t liberals or even Democrats.

        It’s center-right country all right, and that’s just the Democrats.

        • Richard says:

          Why do you think that Defense is more important than State (other than so you can constantly whine about Obama)?

          • LosGatosCA says:

            Funny how all the Democrats think the Republicans are unfit to govern until all the top jobs open up. (SoD, Fed chairman).

            Have you ever checked out the 2013 budget for Defense?

            $614B

            and the budget for State

            “The FY 2013 request for the Department of State enduring appropriations totals $13.511 billion,
            excluding mandatory funding for the Foreign Service Retirement Disability Fund. The FY 2013 request is an increase of $1.097 billion.

            That’s a difference of $600B. The SoS is a figurehead for the diplomacy being conducted from the Pentagon.

            I’ll stop criticizing Republican nominations from Obama (and other Democrats) as soon as he stops making them.

            • John says:

              Can you actually imagine a universe where a Republican president appoints someone like Hagel to Defense?

              I’d add that in terms of the question of importance, the Secretary of State has far more influence over the operations of the State Department than the Secretary of Defense does over that of the DOD. The uniformed military has a ton of influence, and typically the Secretary of Defense is kind of a tepid bureaucrat appointed to wearily help mediate inter-service conflicts.

              Please try to explain to me how, for example, Harold Brown was the most important member of Jimmy Carter’s cabinet.

              • LosGatosCA says:

                You must have been sleeping while Rumsfeld was running roughshod over Colin Powell during the Bush Admin. You might get some insights from Larry Wilkerson if you missed it.

                As for relative influence over operations – of course, the SoS has more influence over the totality of a $14B budget and related operations than Panetta has had over the totality of $600B. That’s because it’s so small.

                Special Forces command alone had a $7.3B spend in 2011, that’s only 1.2% of the Defense budget but over 50% of the State budget.

                But as I posted below, if a weak on national security brand is what the Democrats are looking for, they certainly are hitting the mark.

                • UserGoogol says:

                  Well, the fact that Rumsfeld trumped Powell really seems like it was at least in part an artifact of the particular dynamics of the Bush Administration. Dick Cheney was also quite powerful, even though he held a position which in terms of formal power is “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” Neoconservatives as a group had quite a bit of influence, and Rumsfeld as an individual benefited from that.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Speaking of “What’s Leon Panetta?” What’s up with Leon Panetta? He’s been there a fairly short time, and (by definition, almost) he hasn’t accomplished the main task anyone holding the job faces (getting us out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014). I’m not sure what accomplishment he will be able to put his name to. Why’s he leaving so soon?

  3. Jim Lynch says:

    “Kerry would seem to be a good choice on the merits..”.

    It can be fairly said that those democrats who endorsed the infamous 2003 Iraq War in order to succor their presidential ambitions will always have the inside track to be nominated Secretary of State within a democratic administration. And the party is further debased debased for it.

    My 2004 vote for Kerry remains the only vote I’ve ever cast of which I’m ashamed.

    • Mohandas Gandhi says:

      You should have voted for Nader maybe? Or stayed home? Or Bush?

    • witless chum says:

      Not a bad standard. You’d think Hillary Clinton not being president would slap down the types who supported the war effectively, but we’re not talking about fast learners or they wouldn’t have supported the Iraq War.

  4. thebewilderness says:

    Al Gore for Sec Def.
    Mwahaha.

  5. Green Caboose says:

    I for one am REALLY bored with Obama appointing the GOP to all sorts of various posts and having Washington punditry accuse him of not “reaching across the aisle” enough. Meanwhile, Washington’s favorite son GWB appointed, what, one Secretary of Transportation from the opposite party after “winning” an election with less popular vote than his opponent and with a distorted vote count in a state run by his Brother and enforced by his father’s SCOTUS appointees.

    Democrats, show some spine here. Yeah, I’m glad to see Obama isn’t pre-negotiating with the GOP this time on the so-called fiscal cliff, but even that is iffy. You can see very clearly that Boehner is playing the car salesman who negotiates the deal then comes back and says “my sales manager says that won’t work”.

    It’s time for Obama and company to realize what they are dealing with here. The only GOP you appoint are those who change parties. Make confirmations of presidential nominations to be subject to reconciliation rules – 51 votes – and exempt from the filibuster. It’s not like the Democrats ever filibustered a GOP presidential nominee or ever will given the tendency of milktoast Dem Senators to form “gang of 14″ type deals (still pissed that Clarence Thomas was approved 52-47). And recognize that you hold all the cards on the fiscal cliff negotiation. Either you get what you want or the GOP gets blamed – this was entirely of their creation – they routinely approved deficit ceiling increases with Reagan and Bush.

    • LosGatosCA says:

      The Democrats appoint Republicans because they (the Democrats) are fundamentally lazy on national security issues

      The administration probably thinks that having a Republican in charge when the defense cuts come down is a good thing

      Just like having Gates wind down Iraq was easier. Just like appointing Cohen back in the 90′s was easier.

      Maybe I’m the only one who thinks that’s gutless, but that’s one way to ensure your party is viewed as the ‘mommy’ party.

      • Just like having Gates wind down Iraq was easier. Just like appointing Cohen back in the 90′s was easier.

        I know this is desperately uncool to point out, but didn’t tha tsort of work?

        Weren’t those two of the more successful recent Secretaries of Defense? Looking at Gates’ term, I can’t believe he managed to conduct the withdrawal without bringing about a disaster. That would have been a very easy job to screw up, and defused the bomb. Do you remember what people used to predict for Iraq once we withdrew?

        All I’m saying in, as important as the Mr. Tough Guy visuals are, actually being a smart choice to do the job is a factor that needs to be taken into account.

        • LosGatosCA says:

          Keep appointing Republicans and keep the Democratic Party brand as weak guys that turn to Republicans when the going gets tough.

          If that’s what your aiming for, that’s what you’ve got.

          • John says:

            Yes, it was certainly Obama who looked weak in the foreign policy debate this year. Sigh.

            All this talk about “atmospherics” seems to ignore the fact that none of these Republican appointments seem to have actually hurt the Democrats politically in any clear way that I can see.

            • LosGatosCA says:

              Swift boating Kerry was only possible with an electorate biased against the Democratic national security brand.

              Plus the Obama brand does not equal the Democratic Party brand.

              The damage of another Republican SoD under a Democratic president preceded and will outlast Obama. He’s just doing his part to perpetuate the damage, which is very unfortunate.

              • UserGoogol says:

                The Swift Boating of John Kerry is massively exaggerated. Kerry outperformed fundamentals based models in the election. A lot of shit like the Swift Boat stuff is just a lot of empty fluff that takes up space on the 24 hour news networks but doesn’t impact anything real.

  6. Richard says:

    Hagel is actually better on a number of issues (cuts to defense spending, support for Israel – I’m a strong supporter of Israel but like Hagel’s scepticism about unlimited support and the far right Israel lobby has gone apoplectic about the possibility of Hagel getting the nod) than Panetta. It may be a bad choice because of the atmospherics but I don’t think its a bad choice because of his policy stands

  7. John says:

    I don’t see what’s wrong with Hagel. From my knowledge of him he’s probably actually better on defense and foreign policy stuff on the merits than any likely Democratic nominee would be. Hagel seems genuinely skeptical of activist American foreign policy in a way that, say, Hillary Clinton, simply is not.

    I don’t see what’s wrong with appointing competent Republicans who agree with Obama’s policies within their sphere.

    I’m also not sure what’s wrong with the atmospherics, even. Balanced against the “only Republicans can be Secretaries of Defense” thing, which is kind of lame in the abstract, you have the good press Obama will garner for his “bipartisanship.” I suppose one can have different personal preferences about which of these is more important, but it hardly seems like a slam dunk.

    If Hagel will make a good Secretary of Defense, which I think most of the evidence suggests he will, I don’t see why the rest of it matters much. He’s probably the most anti-interventionist person who’d make a plausible candidate for Secretary of Defense.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I share the Republican daddies concern, but the fact that most Republicans hate Hagel mitigates the problem, and on the merits he seems fine.

    • Ed says:

      Hagel’s anti-interventionism has been somewhat exaggerated. He tends to beef and grumble and in the end go along. With Rice a probable as national security adviser and Mrs. Sunstein possibly moving over to the UN, things could get interesting.

  8. Warren Terra says:

    I’ve got nothing against Hagel as a Sec. Def., I think he’s competent, connected, and about as sound on the important issues as anyone who’d get nominated. But his nomination would mean that three of the last four people nominated to the position by Democrats were Republicans; that seems excessive, and seems like a terrible signal to be sending.

    RE State, Kerry is probably fine. He’s an ineffective, pompous windbag who has no actual goals for the office, and presumably he’d do what he’s told. He got 50 million votes a few years back, which might fool some foreigners into thinking people care what he thinks.

    But the Dems had better have a damned good idea about how to hold his seat, preferably with a younger person of some significant accomplishment (i.e. not just the latest person to realize their last name is “Kennedy”) and possessing some actual ideals. Because even the slighted indication that this move gets Scott Brown back in the Senate – as seems all too possible it might – will be too much. Other tall, handsome, credentialed stiffs are available who’d be equally as useless at State as Kerry will, and their nomination doesn’t carry the same risk.

    • Jeremy says:

      Well, since redistricting is moving me out of his district, I’d appreciate the opportunity to vote for Mike Capuano once more. Of course, if the Democrats are desperate, they can probably get Gov. Patrick to appoint their preferred candidate to the spot. I don’t know how much of a leg up a few months of incumbency would bring, but the Dems have plenty of things in their favor, this being Massachusetts and all.

      • Warren Terra says:

        They can’t get Patrick to appoint anyone; in preparation for Kerry almost getting elected President, the Democratic legislature took that power away from the (Republican) Governor.

        I’d be interested in whether Patrick could win the seat – but I assume he couldn’t win unless Kerry stuck it out and let Patrick run in ’14.

  9. Joe says:

    less so on the strategic aspects

    Maybe the B. thing isn’t why Rice stepped aside, but the public as a whole only heard about that & it comes off as a Republican victory. The Republicans have made Kerry out to be a fine choice on their end. This doesn’t sit well at all for me.

    Pick someone else.

    • Richard says:

      The reason to pick a Secretary of State isn’t to irritate the other side. I think Obama is picking him because likes him, gets along well with him and thinks he would do a good job. All
      Retry good reasons

      • Richard says:

        Meant to say “all pretty good reasons”

      • Joe says:

        He can pick someone else that he likes, gets along with and thinks will do a good job. I assume Kerry isn’t the only possible pick using that criteria.

        I don’t want him to pick a SOS just to irritate the other side or use that as any major criteria. All the same, Cabinet picks involve some political implications among the range of possible choices. Wanting to “irritate” the Republicans not being my concern here.

        • John says:

          But you seem to want to reject Kerry simply because the Republicans “want” him. This is just pure childishness.

          And let’s note that the issue here wasn’t actually that Republicans wanted Kerry. It’s that they wanted Rice’s scalp, and talking about how much better that nice fellow-Senator John Kerry was was a tool to help them get it. They couldn’t care less about Kerry.

  10. Davis X. Machina says:

    Rice was hemorrhaging support on the left over her investments, and her pre-war position on Iraq, at the same time she was already in deep trouble on the right.

    DKos was already split on supporting her.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Her oil ties were a serious reason to have qualms (I’m less certain about the idea that the former asst. Sec. State for Africa shouldn’t work well with disreputable African regimes who largely comply with US policy). But I find it kind hard to imagine anyone up there cares that the liberals were concerned about her big-oil ties.

    • Joe says:

      Concern from the left? Did that stop some of his other picks like Tim Geitner?

  11. Medicine Man says:

    Hagel would be a good fit for the for the SoD job. Partisan qvetching or not, I like the optics of more high profile republicans getting peeled off from the lunatic base.

  12. A question I keep asking because I haven’t heard an answer is: why would a guy like Kerry want a cabinet post at this point in his career? Isn’t senator a better and easier job? What does he gain by this?

    • Desert Rat says:

      He’ll be 73 years old by the time Obama leaves office. It’s quite possible he has no intentions of running for the Senate again. If he does in 2014, it would almost certainly be for one more term at most.

      I don’t think this case is airtight, but maybe he believes Secretary of State would be a nice capstone to his career as a public servant.

  13. joejoejoe says:

    I think if you are president, you pick the best people for your cabinet. Maybe taking Sebelius from Kansas, Napolitano from Arizona, and Vilsack from Iowa made those states more red in 2010 but maybe having 3 relatively strong cabinet secretaries who do a good job help you get govern. I also think recent IL State Senator Barack Obama might just think the bench is deeper in states then you just might think.

    • witless chum says:

      I’m sure that’s how Obama went about it, but there’s usually not a single “best” person for that type of job. As far as I know, Vilsack, Napolitano and Sebelius have performed well, but not 2 or 3 more senate seats in Democratic hands well.

  14. My only problem with picking Kerry is that I wish Obama would stop picking current Democratic office holders. I know that the Dems would probably hold Kerry’s senate seat, but I really don’t think he should keep giving the GOP extra chances to chip away at the Dems’ Senate majority.

  15. bradP says:

    So its Hagel instead of Talent. Small victories.

  16. Ed says:

    Probably Rice’s goose was cooked when those meetings with Republican senators didn’t go so well.

    If the only choice for Secretary of State was between an Obama crony and an empty suit from Massachusetts, whatever. Rice will likely become NSA.

    Hagel is not a bad choice at all, given the options. AIPAC hates his guts, always a good sign.

  17. Johnny Sack says:

    I agree. His term, as you implied, is up in 2014. He’ll be 71. I wouldn’t be surprised if he retired after that. So could be that Kerry’s leaving the Senate anyway, this would just be two years earlier (and be a great capstone). As for strategy, I thought Brown’s win was a fluke, a result of Mass Dems being caught with their pants down in terms of organization. Sure it’s a gamble, an R could win, but it’s far, far from a guarantee. Even so, might be best to put off the inevitable for two more years. I don’t know. But it doesn’t strike me as the cataclysmic event many liberals are characterizing it as.

  18. Johnny Sack says:

    There’s also the matter of political capital in terms of appointments. Kerry is a lock. Other battles are the wiser choice. SCOTUS comes to mind.

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