Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Politics of States

Some are dismayed by the long time it is taking for the SOS decision process to come to a conclusion. I'm actually pleased to see what looks like some serious thinking going on about what role the Secretary of State is going to play in the next administration. Alegre has a great post, Open Thread: More SoS Chatter, talking about some new developments in the Senate including the promise of a subcommittee chair on health insurance.

My own opinion about the choice before Hillary is simply that she has no wrong decision in front of her. Both paths before her, Senate or State Department, have great rewards and great disappointments in store. They are different ways for her to do what she has always done, which is serve the public interest to the greatest extent of her talents and stamina. We as a country will benefit from her dedication, though the people of New York would clearly lose an effective and indefatigable congress critter should she chose the State Department.

I hope a little more that she will go with the SOS position mostly because we know what she'll do in the other role and because we have not had such a presence in that office for so long.

The yowling from The Village that She will just set up a parallel power center if not an actual shadow government is not entirely wrong, though not for the reasons they propose. They are the ones who have forgotten that "L'√Čtat, c'est moi," is not the law of the land, and that people who identify themselves as the emobodiment of the state rather than as the prime servant thereof are the ones at odds with the nation. To do so is to reduce the nation to an extension of a particular will, something that has no right and, indeed, no desire to resist the impulses of the prince. It is the politics of a social clique, not of states.

This is my point of push-back on both the professional Hillary haters and (more gently and with a lot more sympathy) on the Hillary supporters who are suspicious of Obama's intentions. We need to think about this appointment (whether or not Hillary decides to fill it) in terms of serious politics and effective promotion of US interests in the world. We need to consider the representation of the state to other states.

The office could be filled as it has been since at least Eisenhower as a high technocratic position, a place for someone who has not been in electoral politics, is often from a think-tank or academia, or else comes out of a civil service background. You have to go back to George Marshall to find someone who coming into office is a political figure in their own right. Dulles and Kissenger became such figures as a result of being SOS. Even Marshall is not really a good comparison as his political claim was his prominent military role under FDR, where he basically ran WWII. But he accepted the SOS post from Truman while better known and better liked than his boss. He took it up as an opportunity to do world-historic things. You know, the Marshall Plan, that little thing? Since then, all others have come from less illustrious backgrounds. In the case of Colin Powell, the office diminished him. Putting a technocrat into the post would be the safest political bet for the Obama administration and would reinforce the tendency towards an imperial Presidency. The Very Serious People would approve.

So what can it mean that the most prominent, attention getting politician in the country might accept the SOS role? It would be a political bargain and risk. It would mean betting that someone as capable and with the immense national and international authority Hillary commands is a net gain for your administration. To use someone of that stature, as Truman did Marshall, is to go all in on the policy side, because the selection of that individual becomes the touchstone for your policy. The expectation in return is that her prominence and ability will be an asset, more to your advantage than any real or imagined loss of power.

When the talking heads start foaming at the mouth about Hillary forming a parallel sytem, they recognize that power is something that is created, not granted, and that it will accrue to those who know how to use the tools at hand. The state department and foreign service is the most self-concious political class in DC, with the possible exception of the Pentagon. It is the part of our government that is most like the civil service found in other states. It is a veritable mandarinate. Under Powell and Rice, this group has been mocked and sidelined by Cheney and his dirty tricks crew. What could this department do if given a leader who will expect their best across a wide range of issues and events instead of subordinating them to a single-minded pursuit of coersive power? How will other governments respond to Hillary as SOS, particularly given her investment in human rights?

Thus, my curiosity and excitement over the possibilities.



show me said...

I am excited too at the notion that Hillary would lead our State Department. There are many reasons;her expectation of excellence out of the others, her ability to be in a position where all of her gifts would be put to full use, and the knowledge that at her core are women's rights and she would take that onto the world stage.

I have to admit that it changes my thinking on Obama too. The appointment of Hillary would signal to me that he really does mean to get our country out of the ditch and he wants the best on his team.

My pleasure at seeing the talking heads explode would just be a fun extra.

Unknown said...

I would also like Hillary to accept SoS. I think it can help her for another run at the White House in 2016 more than a Senate seat because it'll give her more foreign policy credentials and help the US and the Obama Administration in the process.

Anglachel, what do you think about a 2016 Hillary run?

Unknown said...

So am I wrong to think that Obama will give us some more wars, including in Africa, in furtherance of the imperial project?

I.e., Hillary won't be called on to defend the indefensible?

Who gets to set the policies? (Who's pulling Obama's strings?)

(If I didn't trust his intentions before, why should I trust them now?)

Koshem Bos said...

The Obama administration has a good chance of becoming a cult. Napolitano is the only nominee fit for the job. Holder and Daschle are either incompetent (Daschle) or Washington creature with no creativity or plans for reform (2 million people in jail).

Heads of cult do not tolerate variation, independence, star power or individual success.

Working for Obama is a major risk for Hillary. No George Marshall can exist in a cult.

I'll be delighted to be proven totally wrong, but more than 40 years of watching politics keeps me alarmed about Hillary and the country.

YAB said...

I'm one of those who doesn't trust Obama :).

But even more important, I see this as a dead end job for Hillary. At best, it's for 8 years. She'll be 68 in 2016 and I just don't see her running for President at that age. I know Reagan did, but retail politics has changed a lot. (And, yes, I expect Obama to be renominated. Has any sitting President, no matter how low his popularity not been renominated?).

The Senate will be closed to her. I suppose she could run for Governor, but I'm not sure that being Governor of New York is that great a deal.

But the Senate, despite the seniority issues, does have long-term possibilities (besides the fact that it allows Bill to continue his charitable activities without interference). Yes, Ted Kennedy has the lead on health care for now, but, and I don't mean to be cruel, he does have terminal cancer.

As chair of a sub-committee, Hillary will have some official power in addition to her unofficial power. I just see a lot more room for her to make a difference to ordinary Americans in the Senate - esp. given the cowardly, weak Reid (has any Majority Leader of any party in the past 60 years been so completely ineffective?).

Besides, as SoS, Hillary will be the subject of endless vitriol on the part of the media and, quite frankly, I don't want her to have to live with that. She won't be hidden in the Senate, but she won't be the focus of all this insane, disgusting, hatred.

Cyn said...

Yours is the best argument I have heard yet. I've been gnashing my teeth over her possible appointment and I now feel that she will have an opportunity to made a huge difference and further her career at the same time.

Powell and Rice have diminished the post by their weak performances. I don't think even Hillary's most ardent detractors would call her weak and she's too smart to get hamstrung.

However, I do hate the thought of losing my Senator from NY.

Unknown said...


If Reagan can do it, why can't Hillary? Heck, McCain was able to get the Republican nomination at 71/72! I know that for women its different but she should definitely go for it if she wants to and age should not be a stumbling block in making that decision.

Plus, look at the demographic trends. There will be more older people especially the Baby Boomers and I don't think they'll go quietly into the background.

If she's capable and can almost win in 2008, she can try again and win in 2016.