It’s natural that the transition from a first presidential term to a second is an avenue for some cabinet members to make an undramatic exit.
The anticipated departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been predicted for some time — long before Benghazi — as she’s made clear she’s looking forward to this chapter ending and heading out the door.
This sets the stage for a dramatic entrance to fill the spot.
Imagine, if you will, Secretary of State John Kerry.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — and failed 2004 presidential candidate — has long lusted after the prospect of becoming America’s top diplomat.
As chairman, the Massachusetts Democrat has already undertaken some self-appointed diplomatic missions, such as going to Pakistan to attempt a reset of relations and going to Egypt to talk “democratic transformation” with the Muslim Brotherhood.
And as committee chairman since taking over from Joe Biden in 2009, Kerry as secretary of State would go out into the world in a technically nonpartisan job with many deeply held policy positions clearly on his sleeve.
He’s pushed for the Law of the Sea Treaty, the New START arms-reduction treaty with Russia, and anything anti-climate change.
In what he billed as a “major” floor speech in June, Kerry slammed “a calculated campaign of disinformation [that] has steadily beaten back the consensus momentum for action on climate change and replaced it with timidity by proponents in the face of millions of dollars of phony, contrived ‘talking points,’ illogical and wholly unscientific propositions and a general scorn for the truth wrapped in false threats about job loss and taxes.”
In fact, he called climate change “as dangerous as any of the sort of real crises that we talk about” — Syria, Iran, or anything else on his committee’s plate.
Kerry has filled much of his time since his presidential outing penning pieces for Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, and other outlets.
“It is the Democratic Party that almost all alone occupies that once bipartisan space in national security policy, and it is the Democratic Party that today offers the clear-eyed vision of how to best honor our ideas in the world, while the Republican Party, too often in the grips of hard-edged ideology and a determination above all else to defeat President Barack Obama, is almost unrecognizable from its previous incarnation,” he wrote in FP in September.
Kerry’s statements indicate that he would serve as a loyal stonewall for the administration in the event of a prolonged Benghazi investigation. While even some other Democrats have expressed concerns about the timeline in which lawmakers and the public were first told the terrorist attack was the result of protests over an anti-Muhammad video, Kerry has fully stood by the White House.
“Let me just make it crystal clear. The president issued the appropriate orders, issued the appropriate instructions. The president has followed this as closely as he does on a daily briefing,” Kerry said on CNN Oct. 22. “…And the president, I believe, has made the right decisions. This is much more complicated than meets the eye.”
The senator even lashed out at Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for releasing Benghazi documents that included the name of a Libyan activist who Democrats said could henceforth be in danger but whose name was already out in the open from State Department events.
“This is irresponsible and inexcusable, and perhaps worst of all it was entirely avoidable,” Kerry said. “It is profoundly against America’s interests in a difficult region.”
Kerry also ingratiated himself to President Obama by portraying former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in campaign debate prep — which didn’t go so well the first time out but picked up for the president in rounds two and three.
Though during the campaign he wasn’t exactly, shall we say, diplomatic, posting mocking tweets of Romney and even posting a picture of a robot with the words, “was surprised to run into Mitt this afternoon.”
Helpfully, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), defeated Tuesday by Elizabeth Warren, has told his colleague that he’d make a great secretary of State.
“I think that he has a very good knowledge of world affairs, he’s a real leader on that issue,” Brown said during a campaign debate. “And I looked to his guidance when we were doing the START Treaty, and when we’re dealing with foreign issues.”
It’s certainly not lost on Brown that a Kerry appointment could be his Plan B for staying in the Senate, if he could overcome the bad electoral karma that saw him lose to Warren by 7+ points. But in a sign that the White House is leaning toward Kerry, they seem to have their own exit strategy.
Obama’s first post-election Friday night was spent at a small “social dinner” with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Some have pegged Patrick as a potential attorney general should Eric Holder decide to go, but Patrick could also be asked to step in and keep Kerry’s seat blue in the event of a special election. He would also make a diversity statement for the Dems in an upper chamber with no African-American senators.
The White House may also feel pretty comfortable with the Democrats’ padding in the upper chamber after Tuesday’s gain of two seats, assuming Maine Independent Angus King caucuses with the Dems — a 55-45 majority.
Another top leading contender, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, would only bring up the scandal the administration wants to tamp down during confirmation hearings.
On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said “absolutely, without a doubt” Rice’s part in the Benghazi falsehoods would factor into her fitness for the job.
“I’m not entertaining promoting anybody that I think was involved with the Benghazi debacle. We need to get to the bottom of it,” Graham said. “The president has a lot of leeway with me and others when it comes to making appointments, but I’m not going to promote somebody who I think has misled the country or is either incompetent. That’s my view of Susan Rice.”
Rice may still get a promotion — and not have to face a gauntlet of senators, as their approval is not needed — if Obama named her national security adviser.
The Washington Post reported this evening that Obama might take a chance with Rice and Benghazi, and push Kerry toward retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s spot. But how the scandal unfolds now that Congress is back in town could heighten opposition to a Rice confirmation even more.
The Kremlin has chimed in, too, telling the Kommersant business newspaper that the foreign ministry would “much prefer” Kerry in the job as Rice is “too ambitious and aggressive.”
Ironically, Kerry vocally jumped out in defense of his challenger as the Benghazi furor spread in late September.
“I’m particularly troubled by calls for Ambassador Rice’s resignation. She is a remarkable public servant for whom the liberation of the Libyan people has been a personal issue and a public mission,” Kerry said in a statement Sept. 28.
If Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood leaves — and there are mixed signals lately about what was thought to be a sure thing — the Obama administration will likely want another token Republican for its cabinet, though.
Onetime presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman could fill that bill, bringing his experience as former ambassador to China with him, but it’s a pretty key position with which to make a bipartisan statement.
“If people who are involved in reshaping the party put their country first and come up with solutions that first and foremost are right for their country and for people, then the party will do fine,” Huntsman said when broadly assessing what’s next for the Republican Party.
Other contenders are National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who is also linked to Benghazi, and former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), who endorsed Democrat Bob Kerrey for his failed attempt to return to the Senate last Tuesday.