Category Archives: The Clintons

When Will Clinton Resign? Place Your Bets, Please.

When will Hillary Clinton resign as Secretary of State?  The question is prompted by yesterday’s exchange with my colleague Bert Johnson re: the difference between nomination and “resignation” politics (and I apologize to Bert for being unnecessarily argumentative in response to his typically astute insights).  Some of you may recall that on Jan. 19, during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, Jill Biden blurted out that her husband Joe was given the choice of being either Vice President or the Secretary of State in the Obama administration (see video here).  According to Jill, Joe Biden took the Vice Presidency not because it was his preferred choice, but in deference to his wife who did not want Joe spending the next four years away from his family while globetrotting as the nation’s chief diplomat. Joe Biden, who was sitting next to Jill, laughed good-naturedly but did not deny the story. Almost immediately, however, the Obama team released a statement denying that the Secretary of State position was ever formally offered to Biden.

What is going on here?  One explanation is that after years of living together, Jill has absorbed Joe’s foot-in-mouth disease and that, as with her husband, every thought that enters her mind exits her mouth.  But I suspect she’s smarter than that. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that she knew exactly what she was doing in releasing this information one day before the inauguration.  The statement was the first salvo in the inevitable jockeying for position that takes place at the start of every administration. In one respect, Vice Presidents are at a distinct disadvantage in this battle because they have no constitutional or statutory-based portfolio (other than breaking ties in the Senate); their entire influence is predicated on perceptions regarding the strength of their relationship with the President, and his willingness to delegate responsibilities to the Vice President. Secretaries of State, on the other hand, sit astride key action-forcing channels – particularly the daily flow of messages to and from overseas embassies – that necessitate their involvement, at least nominally, in some aspects of the foreign policy process. Certainly it guarantees them media coverage. This struggle is particularly pronounced in the Obama administration, however, because Biden’s perceived strength is foreign policy – the same portfolio Clinton claims as Secretary of State. Jill’s public statement, then, can be viewed as a not-so-veiled assertion that her husband’s personal ties to Obama trump Clinton’s claim as Secretary of State to run foreign policy; it was Biden, not Clinton, who was Obama’s first choice to be Secretary of State.

Note that this struggle transcends personalities – it is built into the institutional fabric of the modern presidency.   By most accounts, Clinton and Biden got along quite well in the Senate. No matter – the history of previous presidencies suggests they will clash repeatedly in the coming months.  Eventually, because Vice Presidents do not resign, Clinton will be forced to.  Recall the previous Vice Presidents in the modern era who were chosen by Presidents largely on the basis of their foreign policy expertise. Al Haig, the self-proclaimed “vicar” of foreign policy during the Reagan administration, resigned early in Reagan’s first term, in part because Vice President George H. W. Bush was selected over Haig to head the president’s “crisis management” team. More recently, of course, Secretary of State Colin Powell clashed repeatedly with Vice President Dick Cheney regarding foreign policy issues. Powell, too, eventually resigned, while Cheney stayed on.

In an earlier post (see here) I traced the diminishment of the Secretary of State’s position since World War II. That diminishment, I argued, is driven by the rise of competing actors, particularly the national security adviser, that have eroded the State Department’s traditional preeminence as the face of American diplomacy. But when the Vice President also claims a seat at the foreign policy table, the jockeying to sit at the president’s right hand as the primary source of foreign policy advice becomes even more intense.

So, if history repeats itself, when will Clinton resign? Let’s look at the numbers. There have been 65 previous secretaries of state who, on average, served 3.3 years before leaving office (the unit of analysis here is years, not months). Of course, this average is somewhat misleading, since it ignores the fact that the available time in office differs, depending on the length of the presidential term, date of appointment, etc.  To simplify the analysis, and to make it most relevant, let us look only at the 18 post-FDR “modern” Secretaries beginning with James Byrnes, listed in the table below.

Name (President) Dates in Office Tenure (years)
James Byrnes (Truman) 7.3.45-1.21.47 1.5
George Marshall (Truman) 1.22.47-1.20.49 2
Dean Acheson (Truman) 1.21.49-1.20-53 4
John Foster Dulles (Eisenhower) 1.20.53-4.22.59 6.25
Christian Herter (Eisenhower) 4.23.59-1.20.61 1.75
Dean Rusk (JFK-LBJ) 1.20.61-1.20.69 8
William Rogers (Nixon) 1.20.69-9.3.73 4.67
Henry Kissinger (Nixon-Ford) 9.21.73-1.20.77 3.33
Cyrus Vance (Carter) 1.20.77-4.27.80 3.33
Ed Muskie (Carter) 4.28.80-1.20.81 .67
Al Haig (Reagan) 1.22.81-7.5.82 1.5
George Schultz (Reagan) 7.16.82-1.20.89 6.5
James Baker (Bush I) 1.22.89-8.23.92 3.67
Lawrence Eagleburger (Bush I) 12.8.92-1.20.93 .33
Warren Christopher (Clinton) 1.20.93-1.17.97 4
Madeleine Albright (Clinton) 1.23.97-1.19.01 4
Colin Powell (Bush II) 1.20.01-1.26.05 4
Condi Rice (Bush II) 1.26.05-1.20.09 4

The average tenure of this group is 3.5 years. Only one – Dean Rusk – served for the entire length of the president’s time in office. (Actually, Rusk’s 8-year tenure from 1961-69 spanned two presidencies: JFK’s and LBJ’s). Nine – half of the total – served at least a full four-year presidential term, if not more.  Of the eight appointed at the start of the president’s first term (I don’t count the Truman, Johnson or Ford presidencies here), five made it through the entire first term.

This recap suggests to me that we should place the over/under for Clinton’s time in office at four years.  To make it more interesting, I’ll offer a free “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt to the person who predicts to the month – without going over – Clinton’s resignation date.  The betting remains open for one week.  Even if you don’t want to predict the actual date, let me know if you take the over or the under, and why.

Who said political science can’t be fun?

Should Hillary Clinton become the next Secretary of State?

Should Barack Obama offer the Secretary of State position to Hillary Clinton?  And should she take it?

No, and no.

A little background is in order. For most of this nation’s history, the Secretary of State was the 2nd most powerful executive in the nation, behind only the President. That preeminence was largely because the Secretary served as the face of the nation in all diplomatic matters. Indeed, the position was often viewed as a steppingstone to the presidency.  But State’s preeminence began to erode as the presidency entered its modern era beginning with FDR’s election in 1932. Roosevelt served as his own chief diplomat, particularly during World War II when he personally conducted war time negotiations in direct consultation with Stalin, Churchill and other foreign leaders. His Secretary of State Cordell Hull did not even attend any of the wartime conferences of the “Big Three”.

The Secretary of State’s diminishment was hastened by the creation of new foreign-policy related positions through the 1947 National Security Act, including the Secretary of Defense, the CIA director, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and – eventually – what became the national security adviser.  All competed with the State Department for the president’s ear in the foreign, military and intelligence policy realm.  In particular, the NSC adviser, bolstered by an increasingly bigger and more specialized staff, and with no other institutional allegiances, gradually assumed the primary role as the president’s foreign policy assistant, charged with coordinating the foreign policy process on his behalf.   At the same time, presidents continued to view State as a bastion of timid “striped-pants cookie pushers” – career diplomats whose excessive caution was matched only by their lack of imagination.  Kennedy openly complained about State’s inability to come up with creative foreign policy initiatives. He was the first president to give the NSC adviser a West Wing office, and he established a Situation Room in the ground floor of the White House to receive incoming diplomatic and intelligence cables. No longer did presidents need to rely on State for communications from overseas. Increasingly presidents turned to their own, White House-based national security staff to develop and oversee the implementation of foreign policy. Nixon simply cut his Secretary of State William Rogers out of the decisionmaking loop altogether and instead relied on his national security adviser Henry Kissinger to conduct foreign diplomacy.  Eventually he gave Kissinger both jobs – Secretary of State AND national security adviser.  And so the die was cast.  Cyrus Vance resigned as Secretary of State after Carter continually spurned his advice in favor of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s recommendations, particularly when it came to using force to secure the release of Americans held hostage by Iran.  Similarly, Ronald Reagan ignored his Secretary of State George Schultz’s objection to the arms-for-hostage trade with Iran. James Baker had a close personal relationship with George H.W. Bush prior to entering the presidency, and worked well with Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.  But neither Warren Christopher nor Madeline Albright replicated that type of relationship with Clinton. And Colin Powell lasted one term as Bush’s Secretary of State before finally resigning, to be replaced by Bush’s former national security adviser Condi Rice.

The lesson is clear.  The most influential Secretaries in the post-war era either have had a strong personal relationship with the presidents entering the office, as Baker did with George H. W. Bush, or they developed that relationship, sometimes by serving first as the president’s national security adviser, before moving to State, as was the case with Kissinger and Rice.  In contrast, those secretaries who have lacked that relationship have tended to be marginalized, particularly if they were viewed as too willing to rely on input of the career diplomats at State for advice or if they sought to assert a more prominent foreign policy role.

Given this history, why would Barack Obama offer Clinton the position?  They remain political rivals, although that rivalry was muted by their joint desire to defeat the Republican presidential ticket. But it is clear from their nomination fight that they are not of like minds when it comes to foreign policy.  Moreover, they lack the personal affinity that is necessary to overcome the centrifugal institutional forces that cause presidents and secretaries of state to grow apart.  The more effective Clinton is at pushing her own foreign policy agenda, the less likely that Obama will include her in his inner circle.  But it is unlikely that Clinton will want the job if it means she is merely Obama’s mouthpiece.

It may be, however, that by appointing Clinton Secretary of State, Obama hopes to marginalize her, much as Powell was viewed as a peripheral player in Bush’s administration.  If that is Obama’s motive, however, it is too little too late – historically, the easiest way to neuter a political rival is to make him the Vice President. It is what Kennedy did with Johnson, Ford with Rockefeller, and Reagan with Bush. This tactic would have done double duty for Obama because Clinton’s vote-getting ability among key constituencies almost surely would have increased his final popular vote total, making it easier for him to claim a true mandate.  As it is, he missed that opportunity.

Nonetheless, although Obama missed his primary chance to isolate Clinton in the vice president’s position, where he could both keep tabs on her and prevent her from meddling in the policy process, while taking advantage of her support in the general election, he might still see some benefit in removing her from the Senate and trying to isolate her at State.  (This assumes Clinton would have taken the V.P. job – a big assumption.)

But appointing her Secretary of State is much riskier than making her VP. If he appoints her Secretary of State, she immediately assumes a more autonomous and more visible position than the vice presidency from which to push her own more hawkish policy views.  And, much as Richard Armitage did so well for Colin Powell, she could use her staff and her strong media ties to undercut Obama’s foreign policy through careful leaking while appearing to stay publicly above the fray.  She will have frequent opportunities to testify on Capitol Hill, and public forums across the globe to lay out her version of U.S. foreign policy.  In contrast, as VP she would have no such opportunities, short of the occasional state funeral and ribbon-cutting ceremony.  And, if necessary, she can resign her post as Secretary of State to dramatize a difference in principle with Obama, thus leveraging the position and resignation to set herself up as the alternative leader of the party. In contrast, VP’s never resign, no matter how isolated or impotent they become.  They are essentially trapped, their influence entirely dependent on the president’s willingness to throw them the occasional bone.  As Dick Cheney admits, his power derives entirely from George Bush’s desire to have him play an integral policy role.  And as Bush has acknowledged, he was only willing to do that because Cheney had no electoral ambitions of his own.  That wouldn’t be the case with VP Clinton.

In short, appointing Clinton Secretary of State is not a good move for Obama, even – particularly if – he is seeking marginalize her.

Nor is it a good move for Clinton.  By staying in the Senate, she retains political autonomy, while still exercising real leverage over the Obama policy process.  More importantly, perhaps, she retains leadership in the party and remains well-positioned to challenge Obama in 2012 should he falter in the next four years.  At the very least, she should not even consider accepting State without first knowing who will be Obama’s national security adviser and how Obama expects to utilize that person.  History suggests it is the NSC adviser, and not the Secretary of State, who exercises the greatest foreign policy influence on the president.  Without knowing who that is, Clinton would be wise to reject the offer.

Since it makes little sense from either Clinton’s or Obama’s perspective to make her Secretary of State, why are unnamed sources on Obama’s staff leaking the idea?  It may be because they assume she won’t take it.  By offering the position to her, then, they mollify her supporters and put the onus on her to turn it down by taking herself out of the running without a formal offer being made.

Whatever the motive, history suggests that both Obama and Clinton will be better off if she remains in the Senate.  If they are both smart, she won’t be the next Secretary of State.

Hillary Clinton’s speech: In praise of unity, if not Obama

A cursory glance at the major media headlines confirms what I suspected would happen: the cumulative thrust of the coverage of the second day of the convention focuses on Hillary Clinton’s call for party unity on behalf of Obama’s campaign. This is accurate as far as it goes, but it leaves out perhaps the more significant part of the story: What Hillary did NOT say:

She did not repudiate in any manner her criticisms of Obama that she leveled during the primary campaign – that he is not ready to be president.  She did not praise his leadership qualities – temperament, skills, experiences, etc. She said almost nothing about him as a candidate. Instead her message was quite clear:  I am supporting him, and asking you to do so, for the sake of Democratic party unity so that we can win the presidency in the fall.  It was an endorsement of Obama as the party’s standard bearer – not an endorsement of Obama’s qualities as president.

Historically, Hillary is not the first presidential candidate forced to make this type of speech on behalf of a rival.  And in comparison to some noteworthy previous efforts, her speech appears quite effusive in its praise of Obama.  Those of you who can recall Ronald Reagan’s tepid speech in support of Gerald Ford in 1976, or Ted Kennedy’s “the dream will never die” speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, when he basically ignored the actual nominee Jimmy Carter, can appreciate how much better Clinton’s speech in support of Obama was than these previous efforts.

But she could have done more.  Why didn’t she?  It is tempting to claim that she is bitter, or resentful, or that the Clintons simply can’t bear to get off the stage.  But this strikes me as going too deep into psychoanalysis and does not give her enough credit. I think there is a simpler answer: raw politics combined with personal conviction.  The fact of the matter is that Clinton remains a huge power broker in the Democratic party.  She controls about half the delegates at this convention, and by most measures won more popular votes than Obama in the nominating campaign.  Indeed, if you take out the 9-day period  from February  9-19, when  the Democrats held 10 contests, including 4 caucuses, in 11 days and Obama won convincingly in every one, (he outpolled Clinton in popular votes in these contests by an astounding 62% to her 37%, winning 2.2 million votes to her 1.3 million) Clinton is the party nominee by a comfortable margin.  What happened in those 11 days is the subject of another post, but by Feb. 19, the media narrative had irrevocably altered. Although Clinton changed her campaign message at that point to emphasize a more centrist policy message, went on the attack against Obama, and regained her footing, she was never able to overcome the shift in media and voter perception.

In short, Clinton went into last night’s speech with two essential but somewhat conflicting convictions: that Obama was the party nominee and that it was in her interest – and the party’s interest – to do everything possible to insure that he wins in November. At the same time, however, she believes she would make the better president, and that given the opportunity she would do better in the general election.  Given these somewhat contradictory impulses, I thought she did the only thing she could do last night: give an impassioned plea for party unity, but without violating her fundamental belief that she is the better candidate. She remained true to her core convictions – an admirable trait, even if you don’t agree with them.

But will Bill show the same restraint?  We’ll find out….