While I'm sitting around here in the heat watching California's annual Apocalypse unfold, I thought I'd blog about the current political Apocalypse, namely the possibility of Hillary becoming Secretary of State.
There is a wide consensus that She Must Not Do This.
The professional Clinton haters don't approve of anything that involves her taking part in public life, so they can be ignored. Whole Foods Nation doesn't want that woman anywhere near The Precious for fear she will sap his vital fluids or something else equally silly. A certain cadre on the left is absolutely convinced she will launch a preemptive war against Syria and the Palestinians, being nothing but the cat's paw of Israel. (They think this about, umm, everyone as far as I can tell, even Obama.) Certain others simply babble incessantly that she is a hawk, and we can't have a hawk, no, that would be bad, she is a hawk... , subsituting assertions for argument or even a few stray facts. A shockingly large number of this latter group were originally supporters of the Iraq invasion, once again demonstrating that this country is an irony-free zone.
On the pro-Hillary side, people are shouting for her to stay away, it is a trap! There are a number of arguments being advanced, the most cogent among them being that the offer itself is not sincere but is just an attempt to inflict public humiliation, that she will be tainted by association with a failed Obama presidency, that she will lose her independence and be forced to advance a policy she does not believe in, that this is just an attempt to get her out of elective office and prevent her from advancing her domestic agenda, and that to take this position basically ends her elective office career. I find each of these points plausible and reasonably compelling. There is also the argument put forward from both pro- and anti-Hillary writers that she is not the best person for the job.
I'm going to go against conventional wisdom here and argue that not only is Hillary Clinton among the handful of people eminently suited for this particular office under current international conditions, but also that this is a position that will allow her to advance her agenda powerfully and broadly, will provide her with mechanisms for affecting the long term trajectory of domestic affairs, and is simply the smartest choice for serving the interests of the country. While I don't trust The Precious further than I can kick him, the burdens of office and the consuming nature of current events will circumscribe what he can do. Mostly, when I apply the cold eye of political science to the situation and set aside the junior high school popularity contests so beloved of the chattering class, what I see are some very solid reasons to want this person in this role.
First, let me address some of the reasons why she should not accept the offer, should it be made. One of the more compelling arguments against her taking the position is that to do so would mean sacrificing her position in the Senate where she can shape policy. Realistically, her level of seniority is so junior that she cannot effectively lead actual legislation. Given the Senate committee rankings, HRC would end up carrying water for too many people for too many years before she could take power directly. The crude rebuff she received from Kennedy's staffers about holding a sub-committee chair told me a great deal about the tit-for-tat spite of the hierarchy, which is the heirarchy of entrenched staff jealous of their status as much as that of individual senators clinging to theirs. To answer a question others have asked on the blogs, you bet your bippy "they" will diss her and her 18 million supporters. OTOH, she has already set expectations for legislation that others are going to have to meet. My judgment is that the Senate is her fallback position if the Secretary of State position does not materialize under terms she is willing to accept.
Which leads to concerns about the validity of the offer. There has been too much skullduggery from the Obama camp to take anything at face value, so suspicion is warranted. The diss over the VP slot is the model for whether this is a "real" offer, and bringing Richardson in on the heels of HRC's meeting is a very big red flag.
I will reach back to my Tea Leaves post and note that the political landscape is not what it was in August because the financial crisis is remaking conditions on the fly. If the conditions were the same as when Bush took office, or even when Bill Clinton did so, I would give more credence to the "He's just going to screw her over," argument because the stakes for Obama would be low, but they are not and the knowledge that bad decisions now will doom his administration should act as a brake on his more vindictive impulses.
Obama has less than two years to provide some kind of measurable economic improvement to the majority of the population, or he will lose seats in the mid-term elections and probably will be turned out of office in 2012. The domestic agenda will be all consuming under these conditions. Whatever plans Obama and his hangers-on may have had for his fairy tale presidency were jettisoned in mid-September. If he does not get the domestic situation on the right track at once - and he will only have one chance - then he is toast. This puts constraints upon him that most observors are not taking into account.
Let's talk about the Secratary of State office itself. This is not a time of peace and quiet industriousness around the globe. American hegemony is in doubt. For Obama to "play politics" with the Secretary of State position weakens American standing with other nations because it says "You people aren't important enough for me to give you our best ambassador. Your interests and your actions are of less concern to me than settling some political scores." That will not go over well, especially after the Bush years. No matter who he selects in the end, that person has to embody the full strength and resilience of the nation to other national actors. I suspect this is why Kerry is not making the cut - he is too much the milquetoast nebbish. I add that if all Obama wants is a technocrat in that position, he should pick Richard Holbrooke.
The need to deal with the economy and the interrelated domestic policy issues means that Obama must make a decision about the conduct of foreign policy. Either he must put it into a holding pattern and trust that events will not get out of hand for over two years, or else he must place it in the hands of someone who can execute it without hesitation and without any doubt on the other side that this person can act in the stead of the administration. In addition, given that the financial crisis is international, you need someone who is thoroughly versed in economics and the impact of financial markets on domestic policy.
If the choice is Hillary, Obama has no choice but to invest her with that authority or undermine the very reasons to have selected her in the first place. You cannot pick this person and not have her bear the full authority of the administration because to do so is to endanger national interests. It will make Obama himself appear weak, second guessing his picks for the office. When you select HRC, you are not picking some career bureaucrat - her selection must take cognizance of who she is in an international context.
A rock star. Someone known and respected around the world. Someone who understands better than Obama himself the implications of international actions by the president, having been the implicitly trusted mediator between a president and other international actors before. Someone who has no need to establish any credentials with the people she will meet.
So now lets look at Hillary in the context of the office. She is already an international advocate for women's rights. She defends human rights. She fights for working people, especially women. She is on a first name basis with many heads of state asnd is loved by general populations. She understands economics, trade, diplomacy, and war. Unfailingly civil and dignified, she cannot be bullied or intimidated. She will be a team player by being an unflappable leader, demonstrating by example how to do the job right. This is someone who has political vision and believes in the ability and obligation of her nation to do the right thing. And, yes, she is a hawk which pleases me a great deal when the loosest cannon around is Vladimir Putin. Touchy-feely only goes so far with sociopathic dictators. Beijing already knows they cannot push her around. She has standing in Africa.
But there are a few conditions under which it makes no sense for her to accept. The four most powerful positions in the cabinet are Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury and National Security Advisor. Gates will be Sec. Def. for the time being. In the past, the SOS and the NSA have engaged in power struggles that have worked to the detriment of foreign policy. If Obama has the sense to put HRC in as SOS, he may suffere a failure of nerve and decide to divide powers by putting an opponent in the NSA slot to "counter balance" her influence, and we would end up with political infighting. Unless that position is filled by someone who would work with the SOS and not be a pawn in some passive-agressive game, it would be foolish for Hillary to leave the Senate. It would need to be someone like Wes Clark or Richard Clarke. Likewise, if the Sec. Tres. is filled by some tired Wall Street insider hack, there will not be a partner to work with on economic concerns. (I myself would love to see Stiglitz. He's run the World Bank, he won't be bullied, and Wall Street has no attractions for him.)
As mentioned above, that Obama would have HRC and Bill Richardson as finalists for this office does not make me hopeful that he really gets what he needs to do. They are not comparable political actors. Richardson would be suited to a holding pattern foreign policy, for example, and that makes me doubt Obama's confidence in both the policy and the person he would put in place. Holbrooke would be a stronger choice if that is the case and would smack less of political favors. Nunn, Powell, Hagel and Kerry are simply inadequate for the challenge. The only other person comparable to Hillary for this position, frankly, is Bill, and I'm not sure Bill's ego could be contained at Foggy Bottom.
So, that is my argument against conventional wisdom. Much of it is driven by a realistic assessment of just how bad the next four years are going to be no matter what the new adminsitration does or does not do, and a desire to see the best possible outcome by using the best possible people. I do not think my personal wish for the political future can become reality, and the conditions under which that could happen are grim to imagine.