NOVEMBER 19, 2008
WHY HILLARY SHOULDN’T TAKE SECRETARY OF STATE POST
The cabinet is the graveyard of presidential hopes
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
With his search for cabinet members taking shape, all eyes are turning on Barack Obama's possible choice of his chief rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, to serve as Secretary of State.
There may be a number of reasons Clinton would want to head the State Department, but the one that should not motivate her is improving her chances for another run at the White House. As Clinton must know, the cabinet is the graveyard of presidential hopes.
This may be surprise to voters and foreign observers, who may think that the cabinet is a good springboard to the presidency. After all, cabinet members hold high executive offices and are appointed to the position because of their deep connections and frequently because they also possess a substantial popular base of support in the electorate.
In other countries, which admittedly have significantly different electoral processes, a position in the cabinet is the main route to serving as president or prime minister.
But there is another strong reason for the belief that a cabinet member may have an advantage in a future White House run -- a misreading of American history. Many of the early memorable presidents were former cabinet members. Starting with Thomas Jefferson, the first non-president or vice president to win office, five of the next six presidents had first served as Secretary of State. At that time, the State Department was the incubator of presidents.
But that quickly changed. Since Martin Van Buren, only three presidents have served in any cabinet-level job. Plenty of cabinet members have tried to run, including Bill Richardson and Tommy Thompson this year. But the last time a cabinet member was either nominated by a major party or elected was in 1928. And none of those three President/Cabinet members were rated highly by voters of their time or by historians -- former Secretary of State James Buchanan, former Secretary of War William Howard Taft, and former Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. All were one-termers, and two of them, Buchanan and Hoover, presided over the worst catastrophes in U.S. history.
It is not just that cabinet members are not elected, they are not even nominated. You have to go back even further to find a former cabinet member who was nominated for the presidency by a major party and lost -- Republican Presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884, who served a brief one year stint as Secretary of State in 1881.
Cabinet members are not even popular running mates. Despite former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's overwhelming presence in the White House, cabinet members are rarely selected to serve as VP. Outside of Cheney and Bob Dole's running mate Jack Kemp, the last cabinet member to be picked for a run was Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace in 1940. And Wallace was promptly dumped by FDR in favor of Harry Truman in 1944.
Why the complete failure of the cabinet members to move up the ladder? There are a number of possible explanations. Some are basic, such as the fact that there are many fewer Secretaries than there are Senators or Governors -- the two other key positions outside of Vice President. Another is the recent near total domination of the presidential nomination process by vice presidents. Until this year, every election since 1952 has had either an incumbent president or vice president running for the presidency. The vice president has become the de facto successor to an incumbent president, which crowds out any favored members of the cabinet from trying to run for the position.
Being a cabinet member also ties down and limits the actions of a presidential hopeful. Unlike a governor or a senator, positions which allow a significant amount of independent action and cover a number of critical policy issues, a cabinet secretary is tied to a narrow field of focus.
Then there is the issue of credit -- whatever good they do in the administration, they will not get the full credit for -- that goes to the president. However, if the president is particularly unpopular, the cabinet member could be weighed down with a large share of blame for the president's actions, even if they had nothing to do with that work.
Instead of being a presidential incubator, the cabinet serves the opposite role. Many heavyweight politicians actually seek a cabinet appointment to cap their career -- which seems to be the goal of someone like John Kerry, who has also been suggested as possible Secretary of State.
But all indications are that this motivation is not the case for Hillary Clinton. There seems little reason to believe that she is ready to end her public service career. And since there is a good chance that many of her fervent supporters are ready to rally around her candidacy in 2016, or even in 2012 if Obama slips up, why would she want a Secretary of State post?
It is possible that, in addition to wanting the power and responsibility of Secretary of State, she is playing a political calculation. She may feel that Vice President Joe Biden, who will be 73 at the end of an Obama second term, will not run for president. Then, as the senior and most noteworthy member of the Obama team, she would be well positioned for a run, inheriting his and her husband's mantle. There is a possibility that such a move may work, but it is risky. As she undoubtedly knows, it is easier to run for president as a sitting elected official -- like every single major party nominee since 1980.
Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.